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The successful and spectacular inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy last week not only captured the public’s imagination with its ground-breaking double booster recovery and quirky payload, but also promises the start of a new commercially driven space race.
This week saw the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lofting Elon Musk’s Tesla car, complete with spacesuit-clad dummy, to a trajectory through space that could last millions of years. No mere publicity stunt, this was an extraordinary scientific and technological achievement that will have repercussions throughout the space industry.
In simple terms, the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle consists of three Falcon 9 rockets – the workhorses of the company’s launch programme – side by side, with the central core supporting the second stage and payload. Altogether, this involves 27 Merlin engines firing simultaneously, providing 5 million pounds of thrust and capable of launching nearly 64 metric tons into low-earth orbit. This lifting capacity makes the Falcon Heavy the most powerful currently operational rocket by a factor of two, and second only to the Saturn V since the beginning of human space exploration.
Despite the use of tried and trusted Falcon 9 cores, getting the Falcon Heavy ready to fly was not a simple task. The central booster required a substantial redesign to handle the additional half a million pounds of thrust channelled through it from each of the two side boosters. Other crucial aspects tested during the launch included whether the whole configuration could withstand the intense vibrations and supersonic shockwaves of flight, as well as the separation of the side boosters.
In the end, the launch proceeded almost without fail. The side boosters separated and performed simultaneous landings at Cape Canaveral, while the second stage and payload were successfully inserted into a beyond-Mars orbital trajectory. The only mishap occurred when, during re-entry, only one of three engines on the central core that were required to slow its descent fired, leading to the booster hitting the water at approximately 300 mph, in turn damaging the autonomous drone ship on which it was supposed to land.
Following this almost blemish-free launch, the big question is what impact the new launch vehicle will have on the space industry.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to customers of the Falcon Heavy is its estimated cost per launch of only $90 million. In comparative terms, the Delta IV Heavy, previously the most powerful operational rocket, costs around $435 million per launch, with about half the payload capacity. Such a dramatic reduction in cost per launch opens the use of heavy launch vehicles to new customers and adds a cheaper option for existing ones.
Cost is not the only factor. With its lift capacity, the Falcon Heavy provides additional payload flexibility for customers who need to launch particularly large or complex satellites. Despite there being a considerable move to smaller payloads globally, with the proliferation of small satellites and the ability to launch many of them at one time, certain space payloads will continue to be of a size that requires a more powerful rocket. This category includes large, and expensive, government spy satellites. However, the Falcon Heavy will need to fly a number of missions before it can be certified by the US Air Force.
National security launches are not the only area of government activity that may benefit from SpaceX’s new heavy launch capabilities. NASA has been developing its own heavy launcher designed to carry astronauts into deep space, known as the Space Launch System (SLS). Originally scheduled to take its first test flight in 2018, reports suggest this has now been moved back to no earlier than 2020. Furthermore, by the end of September 2018, NASA will have spent $23 billion on the SLS. Given budgetary constraints and the delays inherent in large bureaucracies, NASA and indeed other government space programmes may opt to use commercial vehicles when available. Of course, commercial companies must also grapple with cost and timescale challenges – the Falcon Heavy was initially intended to fly in 2013, and Musk has said that investment in the new launcher was around half a billion dollars – but they are better able to absorb these complications.
Despite Musk’s pre-launch assertion that a successful flight would be ‘game over’ for all other heavy launch vehicles, support for the launch was shown by Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Tory Bruno of United Launch Alliance (ULA), both of whom are competitors of SpaceX. Blue Origin is developing the New Glenn rocket, and it was the Delta IV Heavy flown by ULA that lost the record to the Falcon Heavy. Rather than being dissuaded, these other companies may well be spurred on to compete not only for launch contracts but also to be involved in the first crewed mission to Mars. There has been talk in recent years of a new Space Race. What is different about this one is that it appears that private citizens (albeit extraordinary wealthy ones), rather than states, are leading the charge.
It may be, though, that what this launch has done more than anything is put space exploration back into the public consciousness. This is where the commercial sector can have a greater impact than national space programmes. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA was often accused of allowing space launches to become routine in the eyes of the public. Following the inspirational achievement of landing on the Moon, what followed were missions to send astronauts no higher than Low Earth Orbit. Private companies run by billionaires with big aspirations for space travel can operate without the pressures from policymakers and taxpayers that government agencies face and can, therefore, take greater programmatic risks.
At the post-launch press conference, Musk said he thought space races were fun. This one certainly promises to be just that.
Research Analyst in National Resilience and Space, RUSI