#SpaceX Launches the Year Of Space
On Monday, only about a month after their last launch of 2013, SpaceX used one of their Falcon 9 rockets to deliver a Thai communications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit from the same launch pad. From there, the satellite will move itself into its assigned slot in Geostationary orbit (GSO), which is quite far out where the orbital period is exactly 24 hours and causes the satellite to appear to “hover” over a specific spot along the equator of the planet so that folks can aim stationary satellite dishes at it. This was their first launch into that orbit and one step closer to Elon Musk’s goal of eventually launching a rocket to Mars. Mars won’t be reached by this rocket though. Every launch, each higher orbit, adds to their launch history and knowledge base to help them better refine their rockets and launch support. Increased launch frequency also lowers overall cost per launch.
The Falcon Heavy will be their Mars rocket, as well as the launcher for even larger payloads into those higher Earth orbits like GSO. Some time this year they plan their first two launches of the Falcon Heavy and they already have signed contracts for Falcon Heavy launches for the Air Force and for IntelSat.
What will this do? Well, they still intend to maintain their $1000 per pound price tag to Low Earth Orbit. In fact they plan to reduce the cost even further by developing a vertical power-landing ability for their first stage, and maybe even the second, and then reusing the rockets. They say that this will be even easier with Falcon Heavy, because the two strapped on boosters leave the rocket sooner than with the Falcon 9. They compete with long-standing market leaders in the heavy-launch industry who are now struggling to figure out how to match the SpaceX price point.
I want to talk about that today. Their price also tops any launch vehicle that Governments, notoriously wasteful, can contract and build. China has already told Elon that they can’t compete with him. When the Falcon Heavy launches for the first time, SpaceX will be in direct competition with NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (or as critics of the SLS have called it, “Senate Launch System“) and will fly in space while the SLS is still a paper rocket. How that will play out politically will be fun to watch. NASA (or maybe Congress) continues to refuse to fund the SpaceX’s proposed Red Dragon mission to Mars. I think they’re snubbing SpaceX for Mars missions because they don’t want the Falcon (and the Dragon capsule) to get there before SLS and Orion. Of course, the entire Falcon Heavy program costs less than even one SLS launch, so it in today’s tight budget environment it is only a matter of time before they see the light. It’ll just take that one launch of of FH later this year to get the ball rolling.
The SLS will be the biggest rocket in history, but until it launches Falcon heavy will have the capacity to launch the most weight to orbit of any vehicle currently in operation, more than the Space Shuttle ever did and second only to the now-extinct Saturn V. According to the SpaceX Wiki…
“While the official specifications of the new launcher limits LEO payloads to 53,000 kilograms (120,000 lb) and GTO payloads to 12,000 kilograms (26,000 lb), reports in 2011 had suggested higher payloads beyond low Earth orbit, including 19,000 kilograms (42,000 lb) to geostationary transfer orbit, 16,000 kilograms (35,000 lb) to translunar trajectory, and 14,000 kilograms (31,000 lb) on a trans-Martian orbit to Mars. As of January 2014 SpaceX’s website states that the payload to GTO will be 21,200 kilograms (47,000 lb)”
Trans-Martian is a solar orbit that jumps a spacecraft from Earth orbit out to Mars orbit, SpaceX will be an Interplanetary launch provider and will then drop the price of such launches astronomically (yes, pun intended ;). They will place Moon and Mars launches well within the reach of countries, self-funded commercial enterprises, and variously funded research projects…for which Interplanetary travel would not be feasible at the ridiculous prices of the standing “old school” launch service providers who’s pricing structure depends on “GSA” type Government contracting for their bread and butter. It also takes the progress of Interplanetary space flight out of the hands of the U.S. Congress forever, since Government is incapable of cutting waste and lowering cost and because Government-built rockets will no longer be necessary. The SLS and the Congressionally mandated budget, suppliers, schedule, and politics that go with it, will become completely obsolete overnight and forever. This will waste the many, many billions of dollars that have already been spent on it…dollars that are currently being strip-mined from Interplanetary and Interstellar research projects throughout NASA to feed the SLS dinosaur that we would never have been able to afford to fly.
It’ll also give the United States a monopoly in a global, multi-trillion dollar export industry that relies on high-paying, high-tech engineering jobs here at home.
This is what will happen over the next few years. The first Falcon Heavy launch to Mars will be pushed by the need to try to meet the next Mars launch window (when Earth and Mars align with each other in orbit). Yes…I think that once the design is considered reliable and solid, Elon will try to launch a Falcon Heavy rocket into that window, even if he has to spent every penny of his own personal fortune to do it.
The Falcon Heavy will make 2014 a very big year in space.