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In the closing decades of the last century and the first decades of this one, the average cost of launching a kilogram into Earth orbit simply would not change. The price stubbornly hovered above $10,000, and new idea after new idea failed to break the impasse.

This stymied innovation—after all, if it’s expensive to launch something, it becomes tricky to take other kinds of risks. But opinion was split: Had things stagnated because there was never enough money to see ideas through? Or was it because other improvements—in, say, materials science or autonomous navigation—were insufficiently mature?

All that has changed in the last few years as new craft broke the deadlock, most notably SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is about a tenth as costly, per kilogram, as its closest competitor.

Now the central question is whether this is the start of a new plateau or whether, as Elon Musk hopes, it signals ever cheaper launches and ever more space innovation. The success or failure of these systems will help find an answer.

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Category: Science