Will the Big Falcon Eat SLS?
A few days ago, I commented here about the upcoming challenges to the future of the Space Launch System and Orion orbiter. In my remarks, I happened to mention that SpaceX‘s Falcon Heavy, that is scheduled to have its first-ever test launch in the summer of this very year, can carry 3/4s of SLS’s capacity but those numbers are fairly rough and seem to move around depending on where you read.
However, then I read this article…
…where it says that SpaceX has a new thrust power for the Merlin 1D engine that they will use in the Falcon 9 to launch the SES 9 telecommunications satellite next month. Not much detail is provided, but it does say that they’ve bumped the rated energy output for those engines by 20%.
Let’s see…5,300 lbs, plus 20% is…well it’s more than 6,300. That seems to put the high-end Falcon Heavy within spitting distance of the low-end of the Mark I SLS…at a meager 85 million dollars per launch!
How much is an SLS launch? Half a billion? And it’s not even expected to fly for the first time (an unmanned spin around the moon) until late 2018? The next flight after that, and the first peopled flight, is planned for 2021 to an asteroid and is already under fire.
Oh, and this also expands the business envelope for the Falcon 9, putting even more market pressure on some traditionally expensive birds that used to be the only choices for throwing those big telcom satellites out to Geo-Transfer orbit. Of course, pushing the edges of the Falcon 9s lift capacity like that also pushes any possible reusability right out the window too, but no one else’s rockets are reusable right now either. SpaceX might still have that capability later this year for less challenging flights…most of those other providers won’t even try.
So, Congress uses billions of tax dollars to build the world’s next human-rated deep space rocket, while SpaceX uses a couple hundred million private dollars to beat that rocket to space with what will soon be human-rated components. SLS teams redesign the reusable Space Shuttle engine, to make any new ones they build more appropriate for a throw-away rocket, while SpaceX puts their reusable engines into what will soon be an optionally reusable rocket. NASA mission planners struggle to fill a half-billion-dollar-per-shot launch manifest for SLS, begging Congress for every penny, while SpaceX signs up a self-perpetuating line of willing customers to fly their payloads for $85 million on Falcon Heavy. Launch providers all over the world work to trim their business models to try and compete with the $1,000 per pound price point, while SpaceX works to chop that price point in half.
What will happen to the 70,000 lb to low Earth orbit, $.5B per launch SLS program the first time a nearly human-rated Falcon Heavy flies a 63,000 lb satellite to Geo-Transfer orbit for well under $100M? If that happens in 2016, will we ever even see an SLS test flight in 2018? Or if we do, will it be destined to be a one-off like Ares? What will happen to Orion when it looses its ride? What will happen to Dragon V2, and the CST-100, and Falcon, and Atlas, all built with a lot of technology gleaned from NASA’s tech database, when they find themselves with the most advanced, human-rated launch systems available because NASA’s new deep-space bird is dead on the ground…riddled with budget cuts?
Over roughly the past decade, NASA has used Congress to help commercial space carefully put the pieces in place that will soon strip Congress of most of its power over the United States’ human access to space…and not just to Earth orbit either, but to the entire solar system. It’s a very good thing that Congress is too clueless to see the knife that NASA and its partners are about to stab them in the back with. I hope that all those folks who build SLS and Orion are ready to jump ship when they see those projects start to sink.
SpaceX is not the only company working on reusable launch systems either, other rocket companies are doing it too, and there are space planes under development as well. What SpaceX does soon, others will do later and build an industry of inexpensive access to deep space for you and me and our ideas.
I hope that your children are learning their math, so they can participate in the new space race that is about to unfold as a $1,000 per pound drops to $800 and then to $500. The number of profitable uses for space that will spring from that, most of which no one has even envisioned yet, will touch each of our lives in ways we cannot yet even imagine.