Falcon Heavy success paves the way for open access to space beyond Earth

by Chris Gebhardt

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Tuesday was a momentous and historic day in the history of space exploration as SpaceX successfully conducted the maiden flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket – a heavy lift vehicle capable of placing 140,000 lbs into Low Earth Orbit.  But beyond the sheer numbers of its capabilities, Falcon Heavy has ushered in a new era and continues to fulfill SpaceX’s promise to create a more open access environment to the space beyond Earth orbit.

Falcon Heavy – driving the future:

The maiden voyage of Falcon Heavy was a huge success.  Not only did the rocket meet all of its test objectives – including engine ignition, launch, performance at Max Q, successful demonstration of side booster separation, orbit insertion, orbit loiter, second stage reignition, and the TMI (Trans-Mars Injection) burn – but it also resulted in SpaceX doing something its skeptics (and even Elon Musk) said likely would not work the first time out.

But SpaceX has an amazing ability to take the impossible and make it look effortless, though the hard engineering work and long hours of analysis it takes to pull off those impossible moments cannot be overstated.

And it’s because of the hard work and dedication of the SpaceX workforce and their belief in innovation that makes Falcon Heavy’s success not the first, not even the second, but the third time in just 25 months the always-forward-thinking company has pulled off what many thought impossible.

In December 2015, SpaceX successfully returned a Falcon 9 first stage under self-guided rocket propulsion to a landing pad at LZ-1, retrieving an orbital-bound rocket for reuse with minimum refurbishment.

Just 15 months later, in March 2017, the second impossible moment came when a flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage lifted off for a second time on the SES-10 mission and successfully proved that the Falcon 9 could be reused with no added risk.

Just over 10 months have passed since March 2017, in which SpaceX has conducted eight flight-proven Falcon 9 booster reflights.  Six of those reflights were accomplished on single stick Falcon 9 missions, including SES-10, Bulgariasat, SES-11, CRS-13, Iridium-4, and GovSat-1. 

Two of the reuses were the two boosters used on the Falcon Heavy this week.  With CRS-13, the U.S. government gave its accedence to the safety and use of flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters.

Falcon Heavy launches from 39A – Photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

Moreover, since Falcon 9 booster flight-proven missions began 10 months ago, 40% (eight out of 20) of the total Falcon 9 boosters used have been flight-proven – a reuse figure which has already driven the cost of access to space lower than before.

For Falcon Heavy, its operation is incredibly and historically cheap while simultaneously providing lift capability unrivaled by any rocket currently in operation.

Overall, SpaceX’s website lists the baseline price for an all brand new, Block 5 Falcon Heavy at $90 million USD.  But unless a customer specifically requests that a future Falcon Heavy use all brand new first stage boosters, it’s likely that the listed baseline price will be even lower – as the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 is designed to be reused 10 times with minimum refurbishment and turnaround time between missions.

During a post-flight press conference Tuesday evening, Elon Musk stated that once Block 5 boosters are in operation, configuring them for use as side boosters on a Falcon Heavy would be as simple as removing their interstage and putting on a nose cone instead.

The power of 27 engines and 5.1 million pounds of thrust. Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

But perhaps most surprising was a statement made by Mr. Musk the day before Falcon Heavy’s first launch.  During that teleconference, Mr. Musk stated that the overall price for a Falcon Heavy could reduce significantly once Falcon Heavy flies in its fully reusable configuration – essentially lowering its price to just $62 million dollars or the price of a regular, brand new Falcon 9.

That statement and amazingly low price point for a heavy lift vehicle was predicated on all three first stage cores being flight-proven Block 5 Falcon 9s coupled with payload fairing reuse and recovery.

At that point, according to Mr. Musk, the only expendable part of the rocket would be the second stage, and the reduced prices of flight-proven Block 5 Falcon 9 boosters would therefore drop a fully reusable Falcon Heavy’s price significantly.

Still, with Mr. Musk’s previous statements that Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy payload fairings cost about $6 million USD, one can extrapolate that even if payload fairing recovery and reuse is not introduced to Falcon Heavy, reusing all three first stage cores could still reduce the cost significantly to a baseline of under $70 million USD.

Falcon Heavy departing 39A – photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

These statements and already extremely low price points all work toward the long stated desire of Mr. Musk and SpaceX to reduce the cost of access to space – something that the Falcon 9 has already done and that the Falcon Heavy now stands poised to do as well.

What also makes Tuesday’s maiden flight of Falcon Heavy so important is the sheer amount of payload the rocket is capable of taking both to and beyond Earth orbit – a capability that far outstrips its nearest competitors by several times.

In 2006, the second most powerful variant of the Atlas V rocket launched NASA’s New Horizons probe to Pluto.  Falcon Heavy could take seven New Horizons probes to Pluto in a single launch.  Likewise, in 2011, an Atlas V also launched the Curiosity rover to Mars, a mission that required a total payload weight of over 8,500 lbs.  Falcon Heavy is capable of taking just over 37,000 lbs to Mars in a single flight, or ~4.5 Curiosity rovers at the same time.

But the Falcon Heavy isn’t quite ready for missions like that just yet.  In fact, a second demonstration flight later this year for the United States Air Force and the Department of Defense – if successful – will help certify Falcon Heavy for EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) class missions.

Falcon Heavy pitches downrange from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

The EELV program by the United States is the formal way the U.S. government certifies rockets for use on highly sensitive, classified, and national security missions and is the way the U.S. government largely ensures its access to space.

In this case, the “Expendable” part of the EELV rocket program does not mean Falcon Heavy has to fly in a fully expendable configuration for the Air Force.  The name EELV is a holdover from the beginning of the program when only fully expendable Atlas V and Delta IV rockets were created.

NASA also has its own list of requirements that rockets must meet in order to launch the agency’s sensitive scientific payloads.

Falcon 9 is currently an EELV certified rocket for the U.S. government and has also been called upon to launch critical science payloads as well as missions to the ISS for NASA.  Given the extreme commonality between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, there is no reason, especially based on Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage performance, to think that Falcon Heavy will not be EELV certified and will not be used for NASA science missions in the future.

Falcon Heavy heading downrange. Photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

But that’s the future.  What Falcon Heavy has already begun to prove is that reliable access to space with great capability can be achieved at a much more affordable cost than what is currently offered outside of SpaceX.

And better affordability is certainly the direction SpaceX is driving the commercial launch market toward.  While Blue Origin has not released any information regarding price points for their heavy-lift vehicle New Glenn, one cannot realistically imagine a scenario where New Glenn would carry a launch cost that would automatically remove itself from competition with the Falcon rocket family.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is also working on its new vehicle, Vulcan, that will serve as a replacement to the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.  While Vulcan will initially debut in a fully expandable configuration, ULA plans to introduce SMART reuse (no earlier than 2025), where the engine compartment of Vulcan’s first stage will separate after launch and parachute toward the ocean for recovery, refurbishment, and reuse.

Falcon Heavy Staging – Photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

And Vulcan will be considerably cheaper – in its baseline, no solid rocket booster configuration – than the similar baseline Atlas V rocket currently offered by ULA.

But it is truly the combination of Falcon Heavy’s capability and its low price point that makes this vehicle so important to our space exploration future – perhaps most importantly to the host of interplanetary missions that are rejected each year because of limited funding.

While interplanetary missions are expensive by their nature, a significant percentage of total mission cost goes toward the launch vehicle.  For example, the New Horizons mission for NASA had a total cost, as of 2015, of about $700 million, with at least $168 million of that (24% of total mission cost) going toward the price of the Atlas V 551 variant that launched the mission.

(NOTE: The total price NASA paid for the New Horizons launch is likely higher than $168 million as that number is based on the available baseline price for an Atlas V 551 in 2015 after Atlas V prices fell sharply when SpaceX began offering its Falcon 9 for commercial and government missions.)

Starman, back-dropped by our home planet as the Falcon Heavy continues to push its payload toward Earth orbit during launch operations. Credit: SpaceX

When one compares the baseline price of Falcon Heavy toward this summer’s Delta IV Heavy launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the Delta IV Heavy’s starting price is $400 million compared to Falcon Heavy’s $90 million.

(NOTE: This is not to say NASA overpaid for the Parker Solar Probe launch or the New Horizons launch.  It is simply a comparison to show how far SpaceX has been able to reduce the cost of access to space with greater lift capability since the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets were designed in the late-1990s/early-2000s.

In fact, when the Parker Solar Probe mission required launch vehicle selection, Falcon Heavy was not an option – and is still not yet an option for such a critical science mission.)

However, what Falcon Heavy does provide now is a conversation on total launch vehicle cost.  If organizations can save between $78 million and $300 million USD for New Horizons and Parker Solar Probe class missions by opting to launch on a Falcon Heavy, that could translate into additional funding for other interplanetary scientific missions that have not been selected to date.

The two side core boosters of the first Falcon Heavy perform synchronized landings at LZ-1 and LZ-2 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

And there is certainly no lack of proposals for various interplanetary missions throughout the solar system – specifically to the potentially life harboring moons of Jupiter and Saturn and to the ice giants Uranus and Neptune, which have never been visited by orbiting probes.

Now, all of that is to say that while Falcon Heavy offers a great capability at an amazing price, it is not, nor should it ever be, the end-all-be-all of the launch market for interplanetary missions and heavy lift vehicles.  Redundancy is important, so important that it honestly and truly cannot be overstated.

While the Falcon Heavy’s closest competitors do cost more, they also offer critical capabilities not just for the United States government but for the world’s space exploration needs.

But with Falcon Heavy’s successful maiden flight, there is one undeniable truth – the launch market has been changed irrevocably in much the same way SpaceX changed it by recovering the first orbital class booster and by reusing the first orbital class booster.

“Don’t panic.” Starman gets sage advice from the Tesla Roadster display while in Earth orbit during the successful Falcon Heavy maiden launch. Credit: SpaceX

High cost rockets for heavy lift and interplanetary missions are no longer the only option.

While Falcon Heavy will not take people to orbit or crews to Mars under the current plan, what it does reinforce and prove is that SpaceX is a legitimate and reliable force within the launch market.

It might have taken four to five years longer to get Falcon Heavy off the ground than originally thought, in part due to the increasing evolution of the Falcon 9 design and the complexity of Falcon Heavy itself, but when SpaceX was ready for this rocket’s debut, they proved that hard work and taking the time needed to get the design right and not give in to schedule pressure paid off in a spectacular success witnessed by millions around the world.

And that guiding principle, coupled with reduced cost of access to space, reusability, and forward thinking innovation will now lead SpaceX directly into Commercial Crew launch services, the build and introduction of BFR, and the ambitious goal of making humanity a multi-planetary species by the end of the next decade.

Starman and Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on their way to the asteroid belt after the successful maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

For SpaceX, the desire to do something new and the ambition to overcome the technical obstacles contained within speak to the very reason we go to space and how space can continue to improve our daily lives.

Are their plans ambitious?  Yes.

Are they technically challenging?  Definitely.

Are they tied to the very ambition that has been at the heart of space exploration for the last six decades?  Absolutely!

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