SpaceX: Falcon Heavy, Falcon 9 tag team set to share 20 launches a year

by Chris Bergin

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) head Elon Musk revealed their latest launch vehicle on Tuesday, the Falcon Heavy. Effectively three Falcon 9 core stages strapped together, the new vehicle – set to debut as soon as 2013 – will be the most powerful US rocket to have launched since the Saturn V was built for the Apollo Program, eventually sharing a 20 missions per year manifest with the Falcon 9.

Falcon Heavy:

The Falcon Heavy’s kerosene-driven first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores, a core which has performed without issue on the opening two Falcon 9 flights. In total, 27 of SpaceX’s upgraded Merlin engines – currently being tested at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas – will generate the 3.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff for the new vehicle.

The Falcon Heavy’s performance stats are impressive, with a Mass to Orbit (200 km, 28.5 deg) of 53 metric tons (117,000 lbs), with its 3.8 million lbs of thrust lifting the 1,400 metric tons of vehicle off the pad. The FH will be 69.2 meters (227 ft) in length, a total width of 11.6 meters (38 ft), with a fairing width of 5.2 m (17 ft).

“Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions,” Mr Musk told a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Falcon Heavy will be the first launch vehicle to employ a propellant cross-feed system from the side boosters to the center core, thus leaving the center core with most of its propellant after the side boosters separate. The net effect results in performance comparable to a three stage rocket, even though only the upper stage is airlit, further improving both payload performance and reliability.

“Depending on what the final performance numbers look like, it’s looking like at least 117,000 lbs, maybe even above 120,000 lbs. This is a rocket of truly huge scale,” noted Mr Musk. “117,000 lbs is more than a fully loaded Boeing 737… in orbit. It opens up possibilities with customers that aren’t currently present.

“If you compare the capacity with either the Space Shuttle or the Delta IV-Heavy – which are the two most capable vehicles in the world today – we’re (Falcon Heavy) more than twice the payload capability of those vehicles.”

Mr Musk noted that the Falcon Heavy will debut at Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) at the Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California, before eventually setting up its primary home at Cape Canaveral in Florida. This plan will allow the new vehicle to play tag team with the Falcon 9, with both vehicles sharing the launch manifest for their larger passengers.

“Falcon 9 can address about half the market, whereas Falcon Heavy can address the other half for the larger government and commercial satellites, as well as opening up new market opportunities for spacecraft that can’t be launched into space by the currently available rockets.”

Noting that launch costs have been steadily rising over recent history, Mr Musk emphasised one of the major advances his vehicles will bring to the marketplace, citing the magical milestone of $1000 per pound to orbit.

“Falcon Heavy represents a huge economic advantage. It costs about a third as much per flight as a Delta Heavy, but carries twice as much to orbit, so is effectively a six fold improvement (in respect to) per pound to orbit. Falcon Heavy sets a new world record for the cost per pound to orbit – around about $1000.”

The debut launch is currently without a primary customer, as much as SpaceX hope for late interest at a reduced cost. However, it is likely to launch with several smaller secondary payloads on the opening flight. SpaceX are confident they will be able to soon announce primary customers for the second and subsequent flights of the Falcon Heavy.

The vehicle is also designed to comply with the NASA Human Rating Standards  – no mean feat given the highly strict set of parameters laid out by Agency on safety.

“(Falcon Heavy) is designed to handle structural margins which are 40 percent above the flight loads it expects to encounter. This is opposed to normal satellite launches, which are designed to 25 percent. It also has engine out capability, allowing for it to lose multiple engines and still complete the mission. It also has triple redundant avionics,” added Mr Musk. “All of this is designed to allow it to launch people and do so safely.

“Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are designed to meet with all of the published NASA Human Rating standards. It would only be some unpublished or new standard that we wouldn’t be in compliance with.

Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) Applications:

Citing the future missions which could be undertaken with such a large vehicle, Mr Musk believes the barriers are being taken down for flagship missions, by a vehicle which will be flying by the first half of this decade.

While such unmanned and manned flagship missions are part of NASA’s future goals, the Agency continues to show no signs of being able to carry out Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) missions – with a Human Rated vehicle – until at least the next decade.

The first example noted by Mr Musk was the potential of carrying out a single FH-baselined Mars Sample Return mission, which would utilize a quarter of the vehicle’s upmass capability when compared to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) missions, around 30,000 lb to Trans Mars Injection (TMI).

“It (FH) has so much capability, I think we can start to realistically contemplate a (unmanned) Mars sample return mission. This requires Falcon Heavy’s capability, as you’ve got to send a Lander to Mars which still has enough propellant to return to Earth. You could potentially do that with a single FH flight.

For Lunar missions, the Falcon Heavy would achieve around 35 percent of its upmass capability to LEO, somewhere over 35,000 lbs. And while the business plan for SpaceX is to utilize their large vehicles for unmanned customers – at least in the opening salvo of missions – the FH opens new doors for BEO operations for both unmanned and manned missions.

“The Falcon 9 is capable of transporting humans to LEO, such as to the International Space Station (ISS) and back, but doesn’t quite have the power to go beyond the Station. Whereas Falcon Heavy could go much further than Low Earth Orbit,” continued Mr Musk.

“FH is about half the lifting capability of the Saturn V, so in principle you could do another mission to the moon just by using two launches of the Falcon Heavy – one delivering the return vehicle to the moon and one delivering the Lander to the surface of the moon.

“If you had a small enough spacecraft you could conceivably do it with one Falcon Heavy, so it depends on how big of a spacecraft and how many people you want to send, but you could slim it down to just one Falcon Heavy. With the spacecraft carrying some propellent – which I assume you’ll need – I’m confident you could achieve (the moon mission) with two Falcon Heavy launchers.”

The potential schedule for launching humans on the Falcon Heavy would likely be achievable after the first few flights of the vehicle. With F9 and Dragon already technically capable of manned missions – minus the need for a Launch Abort System (LAS) to be integrated into the manned vehicle – FH would then being used as a baseline for what is effectively three F9 cores.

“There are no changes that we are aware of that we’d make to Falcon Heavy able to launch people,” Musk noted. “There may be changes to the spacecraft it carries, but not the launch vehicle itself – or if there are, they would be very minor. This certainly opens up a wide range of possibilities, such as returning to the moon, conceivably even going to Mars, although that would require twice as many launches.”

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Engine Production and Flight Rate:

The main engine on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy is called the Merlin, an engine which was developed internally at SpaceX.

The engine’s power comes from a propellant fed, single shaft, dual impeller turbo-pump operating on a gas generator cycle. The turbo-pump also provides the high pressure kerosene for the hydraulic actuators, which then recycles into the low pressure inlet. The turbo-pump also provides roll control by actuating the turbine exhaust nozzle (on the second stage engine).

With a need for nine of these engines on the Falcon 9 and 27 on the Falcon Heavy, the Merlin – which is undergoing a performance upgrade – is set to become part of a major ramp up in production to satisfy the projected flight rate.

“We have an upgrade for our Merlin engine, from 95,000 lbs of sea level thrust to 140,000 lbs of sea level thrust, so a pretty substantial upgrade. And we’re also making some design improvements to our manufacturing ability to allow us to go to a higher rate of engine production,” added Mr Musk.

“We’re anticipating – if launch demand ends up like we think it is – we’ll have production rate of around 400 booster engines a year, which I think would be more than the rest of the world combined, certainly more than the rest of the US, though that’s not saying much, unfortunately.”

With the ramping up of production noted as SpaceX’s number one focus, achieving the production of 400 engines per year will result in over 40 cores, needed in order to sustain a flight rate expected to be around 20 flights per year, as Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy tag team on customer contracts.

“That’s what’s needed in order to do 10 Falcon 9s and 10 Falcon Heavys in a given year,” noted Mr Musk. “If you look at our launch manifest, just based on the existing contracts that we have, we already have on the order of 10 launches booked for Falcon 9 – and we’ve only done two Falcon 9 launches.

“20 launches a year is not a crazy number. We expect that to happen without any miracles. We must make sure that we are holding our production and launch capability to meet that demand.”

Noting experience from the automotive industry, Mr Musk added that achieving high volume engine production is more than possible, to the point 400 per year is not the ceiling on yearly output.

“Right now our engine production rate is around 50-60 a year with the Merlin I-C. Merlin I-D – in addition to a thrust and performance upgrade – its really designed for manufacturing ability as well. I’m very confident we can build 400 engines a year, or even 500-600 engines per year if we need to.”

Mr Musk added the increase in production of the friction stir welded aluminum lithium alloy core stages is also achievable.

Launch Sites:

As initially noted, Falcon Heavy will debut out of the West Coast via the VAFB, prior to the focus switching to the Eastern Range – which is primarily desired by SpaceX’s main group of existing and potential customers for GTO missions.

The build-up of SLC-4 at VAFB can be seen via images from the promotion videos for the FH launches, showing it will be no small feat to achieve, whereas plans to build on existing property at Cape Canaveral will allow for the dual use of Space Launch Complex 40 by the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

“We’re starting off at Vandenberg, before transitioning to the Cape,” noted Mr Musk. “We will be upgrading our launch pad at the Cape so we can process both a Falcon 9 and a Falcon Heavy simultaneously for them both to roll out to the pad.”

SLC-40 was built in the 1960s as a Titan IIIC launch complex. The first launch from the complex, in June 1965, was the maiden flight of the Titan IIIC.

During the late 1960s, the complex was converted to support the MOL programme, with the mobile service structure being modified to include an environmental shelter. When MOL was cancelled, LC-40 resumed normal operations.

The last Titan IIIC launch occurred from LC-40 in 1982, and shortly afterwards by the Titan 34D began using the complex. It was then used by the Commercial Titan III before the complex was completely rebuilt for the Titan IV. In 1997 the Cassini spacecraft was launched from LC-40 on its mission to Saturn.

The final Titan launch from the complex occurred on 30 April 2005. In April 2007 SpaceX leased the site and began to convert it to accommodate the Falcon 9. The complex was used for both of the opening Falcon 9 launches.

Surprisingly, Mr Musk added that there is a possibility being explored in using one of the Shuttle launch pads (39A and 39B). However, the current use of SLC-40 is their default plan.

However, NASA’s “current” plan – should they decide to press forward with an evolvable Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (SD HLV) as the Space Launch System (SLS) – would preclude such a possibly, given the Block 0 SD HLV would use 39A, prior to the larger, evolved vehicles using the clean pad of 39B.

“We’re also investigating the possibility of using one of the old Shuttle pads for Falcon Heavy,” Mr Musk added, likely referencing Pad 39B, which is currently being demolished into a clean pad, as per the plans still in effect from the Constellation Program (CxP).

SpaceX noted that they expect Falcon Heavy to debut from Cape Canaveral in late 2013, or sometime in 2014. Using the Cape Canaveral SLC-40 plan, another hanger would be built at 90 degrees from the Falcon 9 hanger, so as to allow for dual processing to take place.

“We expect to see the vehicle on the pad (at VAFB) in November or December of next year,” added Mr Musk. “The launch itself is a little more difficult to predict as we have to go through final regulatory approvals, there could be things we have to debug with the launch integration. Expecting to see a launch sometime in 2013.”

Mr Musk noted that a couple of hundred jobs would be created on the East Coast, depending on customer demand/flight rate.

Price Competition:

SpaceX are no strangers to criticism, mainly from some of the established launch services providers, who note scepticism over the Falcon costs and lack of a notable track record. However, SpaceX are fighting back, targeting the EELV launch program with their low-cost heavy lift capability.

“Falcon Heavy, with more than twice the payload, but less than one third the cost of a Delta IV Heavy, will provide much needed relief to government and commercial budgets. This year, even as the Department of Defense budget was cut, the EELV launch program, which includes the Delta IV, still saw a thirty percent increase,” noted SpaceX’s own release announcing the Falcon Heavy, coupled with a pdf focusing on the EELV market.

“The 2012 budget for four Air Force launches is $1.74B, which is an average of $435M per launch. Falcon 9 is offered on the commercial market for $50-60M and Falcon Heavy is offered for $80-$125M. Unlike our competitors, this price includes all non-recurring development costs and on-orbit delivery of an agreed upon mission.

“For government missions, NASA has added mission assurance and additional services to the Falcon 9 for less than $20M.”

Mr Musk also referenced the differences between how his operation acts in the marketplace, compared to other launch providers, citing the major difference in costings and transparency.

“I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking on the part of our competitors that our costs must be higher, but they are not. In fact, I think we’re unique in the business of publishing our launch costs on our website, whereas other providers treat it like a bazaar – they’ll charge you what they think you can afford.

“We believe in everyday low prices and we’ve stuck to our guns on that. Falcon 9 costs $50m and it’s been that way for a while, whereas Falcon Heavy will cost around $100m, so we’re very confident on being able to maintain those prices and let history be the judge.”

The next launch for SpaceX will come via their Falcon 9 launch vehicle, although it is yet to be decided by NASA managers if they will allow SpaceX to combine their COTS 2 – currently the next launch, scheduled for July 2011, with the COTS 3 mission – currently on the books for January 2012.

Should the decision prove to be positive, is it likely SpaceX will schedule the combined mission for November or December of this year.

(Images via SpaceX, USAF, L2).

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