The World Reacts to Falcon Heavy

SpaceX told the world about this rocket many years ago, few people noticed. Many folks who do follow such things predicted that the world would change with this launch…but that was before any of us knew about the “(shrill whistle) Hey, everyone! Look what we can do!” payload.

As I write this, the Starman video was up to 15 Million views on YouTube. Even more crazy was the SpaceX Live hosted webcast of the launch, which was viewed all over the world, was said to have had 4 million concurrent viewers on launch day.

The Falcon Heavy launch occurred three weeks ago and the world has begun to digest it. Quite a lot of talk has been about how an operational Falcon Heavy (which is scheduled to fly two or three more times this year) will inevitably apply new pressure on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS)…currently under development and not scheduled for its first flight until 2020.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator under President Obama, Lori Garver, already a strong advocate for New Space, had this to say almost immediately after the launch in an oped for The Hill, questioning the continued purpose of further funding for SLS…

“The question to be answered in Washington now is why would Congress continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars a year on a government-made rocket that is unnecessary and obsolete now that the private sector has shown they can do it for a fraction of the cost?”

“It is understandable that government employees, contractors and their elected officials want to keep this expensive rocket development program going. A large share of NASA’s roughly $19 billion budget has been spent on this constituency, and in turn is protected by them. We have come to accept this “tax” on the agency, but It is time for the nation to decide if we want a space program — or a jobs program.” — Lori Garver

Many folks smarter than me continue to insist that SLS and Delta IV Heavy, with their liquid hydrogen second stage, are a better and more efficient deep-space solution. However, I doubt the efficiency savings over the kerosene engines on Falcon comes anywhere close to beating the horrific price difference.

The currently published plan is for Falcon Heavy to fly for over a decade before SLS with its superior performance will be available for any mission other than building the Deep Space Gateway and Deep Space Transport. SpaceX expects to fly the rocket two to three times per year.

Between now and 2022 NASA will build the propulsion module for the Deep Space Gateway at the same time as the second SLS rocket that will launch the module onto Lunar orbit. However, NASA should still continue to build and fly its smaller experiments using the launchers that are available, for the sake of the schedule. Is Congress really going to force NASA to postpone all other deep space missions (like Europa Clipper) until then? Either way, folks will still spend all those years watching Falcon Heavy build a launch history flying other missions and will increasingly ask the question that Ms. Garver asked above.

The next launch window to Mars will occur in May/June of this year…a little too soon for a bran spanking new system, but you can bet that SpaceX will try and launch a Falcon Heavy into the next one (mid 2020)…with or without customers. Some level of NASA participation, similar to what they arranged for the now cancelled Red Dragon mission, would help ensure success on that flight, as well as garner confidence from other commercial interests who might have a payload or two to send along.

Eric Berger at ARS Technica did a nice comparison of Falcon Heavy, Delta Heavy, and the Space Launch System. He crunched some throw-weight numbers and came up with this shocker…

“The SLS rocket was originally supposed to launch in 2017, but now the maiden flight of the SLS booster has slipped to 2020. That is understandable; most large aerospace rockets experience delays. However, the cost of a three-year delay is $7.8 billion.”

“That $7.8 billion equates to 86 launches of the reusable Falcon Heavy or 52 of the expendable version. This provides up to 3,000 tons of lift—the equivalent of eight International Space Stations or one heck of a Moon base.”

SpaceX has announced first flights of their new BFR (pictured above) in 2020. It will burn methane fuel, lift more than SLS, and likely be fully reusable and far cheaper. Of course, few people believe that SpaceX will actually hit that target, Elon being notorious at “rocket vaporware”, but how far will that timeline actually have to slip for it to compete with SLS for NASA missions?

There were those who interpreted the metaphor of Starman more negatively than I and others did, being put off by the frivolous nature of launching a dude with a sports car into space. To those I would ask this question: If the payload for this test launch had been the typical block of concrete, would you have focused on it, or the capabilities of the breakthrough in cheap lift capability that was tested with it? If the latter, then why not just ignore Starman and do that?

If you still can’t bring yourself to see past Space Tesla, then consider the following…

  • How much does a 2008 model Tesla Roadster weigh?
  • How much spacecraft can one build, that weighs that same amount…if it doesn’t have to do much more to reach Mars than a dummy in a spacesuit driving a Lotus :Glitze: with an all electric powertrain can do?
  • Is the mission fundable at a launch price of somewhere around, say, $150M to LEO? $60M?
  • Can you have it ready by 2020?

It isn’t just SLS that feels the pressure exerted on the industry by this launch. ESA has expressed serious concern with their Arian line of rockets competing against this new capability…

“…breakthrough developments from new space sector players such as reusable launchers and marketing wheezes like sending a car into space are attracting attention and increasing pressure on the public sector.”

“Totally new ideas are needed and Europe must now prove it still possesses that traditional strength to surpass itself and break out beyond existing borders.” — Jan Wörner, ESA

SpaceX accomplishments have begun to be characterized as an expansion of United States prowess in space…with the Falcon Heavy launch sighted as an example…

U.S. Vice President Pence

“And of course, just a couple of weeks ago, the world watched with wonder as the Falcon Heavy blasted off from this very shoreline, and then moments later sent two of its boosters sailing back down to Earth, where they landed side-by-side, intact, less than a mile from where they’d lifted off. Very impressive indeed.”

“The evidence is clear: While the government can blaze new trails into exploring the outer expanse of space, like all frontiers, ultimately that will be settled by the dreams of our people, by the brilliance of our innovators, the energy of entrepreneurs, and the daring of our explorers together.”

“This truth echoes through the history of the Kennedy Space Center, named for a President who challenged the American people to marshal the best of our, in his words, “energies and skills” to “become the world’s leading space-faring nation.”


“…to put it more bluntly, this time the Americans showed us Chinese with pure power why they are still the strongest country in the world.”

Not everyone in this new industry shows off like Elon Musk, others who hold things closer to the vest have been busy building too. They work in comparative secret to prepare their surprises. So this event was not an outlier. Momentum has been building toward it for about a decade. The rising of that rocket through the Florida skies was just one of the first larger bubbles in a pot that has only now started to boil. I doubt it can be stopped by governments anymore, and they seem to have moved off the tracks and instead have lined up to board the train.

Get used to it. Bigelow Aerospace, who has been waiting for over a decade for favorable market and support conditions to release their new space product, inflatable space station modules, finally announced last week that it will orbit the world’s first private space station in 2021 and send another to Lunar orbit in 2022.

Like and Comment. What is your reaction to the launch?

~ by Bill Housley on February 26, 2018.

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