The First Commercial Launch of Falcon Heavy — Part 2: What Will It Do To NASA’s Space Launch System?

NASA, the Air Force, ArabSat…they all want a piece of Falcon Heavy…the rocket that SpaceX has already decided to replace with it’s new Falcon Super Heavy and Starship (formerly BFR) someday.

NASA’s Orion capsule currently languishes in its hanger waiting for its terribly late and overly expensive ride, the Space Launch System (SLS Block 1), to be completed. NASA and the Trump Administration very much want Orion’s EM-1 mission (uncrewed Lunar flyby) to go off on schedule around April-June 2020, but SLS is widely viewed as not able to meet that launch date and unnamed commercial launchers are being considered.

I said “Unnamed” commercial launchers, but Bridenstine and Pence can only be referring to the only two large currently operating rockets in the world…Falcon Heavy and ULA’s Delta IV Heavy. Now, experts widely view such a plan as untenable for a number of reasons. However, the danger to SLS is that just the brain exercise involved in trying to figure out how to split an Orion lunar launch between a Delta Heavy and Falcon Heavy endangers what is left of SLS’s already shaky mission profile and quite rightly gives SLS builders and the Congress folk whom they vote for the heebeejeebees. After all, if Orion can dock in orbit with a lunar stage launched on a separate rocket, then what do we even need the $1B per launch SLS for…especially when Falcon Super Heavy, New Armstrong, and probably several others will come along and render it obsolete sometime in the mid-2020s? Also, without the need for SLS, the new Lunar Space Station plan would need to go into redesign and might not wake up from that surgery, since it was partly envisioned to provide launch missions for SLS/Orion and might even be obsolete before it is complete.

It’s not surprising that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced afterward that the engineers working on SLS had found some ways to speed development of SLS along.

Falcon Heavy should not be compared to the Space Launch System capability wise anyway, but timing keeps bringing their fates together. Setting aside the fact that Falcon Heavy is flying and SLS isn’t, I’ve said here before that as awesome as Falcon Heavy is, it cannot compete with even the Block 1 SLS in detail. Once in space the kerosene engines on the Falcon line are not as good as the liquid hydrogen Space Shuttle engines used by SLS. Please do not compare lift capacities and say, “But, Bill, they lift roughly the same.” They don’t. SLS is 9 meters wide…the Falcon Heavy second stage is the same as Falcon 9, which is only 3.7 meters wide. So payloads built for SLS CANNOT fly on Falcon without a special payload adapter which SpaceX has already said they are not interested in building because their next rocket DOES lift as much as SLS, IS 9 meters wide, burns much more efficient liquid methane, will be fully reusable and dang cheap to launch, and will need missions once it is in operation. It’ll come in to operation right in the middle of SLS’s working lifespan with comparable capabilities and a minuscule price.

I hate even comparing the FH and SLS…because they will never even be operational at the same time anyway. However, folks keep slapping them next to each other anyway…largely because SLS is still a paper rocket, is horridly expensive, and its schedule creep keeps dumping its missions off on Falcon Heavy. They’ve already moved Europa clipper and one of the LOP-G modules to a “commercial launcher”. NASA can’t actually SAY Falcon Heavy because it isn’t even officially certified to fly missions for them yet, and SpaceX doesn’t want to develop it any further. NASA’s money is as good as anyone’s but doing business with the government generally comes with lots of baggage and NASA didn’t help build that rocket. I guess it’ll depend on how much SpaceX needs the cash. At a certain point though, SpaceX will start preferring to market Starship and Falcon Super Heavy instead.

We’ll see.

Tomorrow…

What does this week’s Falcon Heavy launch do for Commercial Crew…NASA’s plan to totally hand off all low Earth Orbit operations to Commercial Space?

Click here to search all articles in this blog that speak of Falcon Heavy.

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~ by Bill Housley on April 7, 2019.

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