A successful SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch gives NASA new options
Space X's Falcon Heavy rocket will launch for the first time next week. It might be the company’s most anticipated mission yet, and it could open up a new line of business — one that might interest NASA.
The new rocket will be the most powerful in the world, which means it could launch heavier and more complex cargo to space. Once the vehicle becomes operational, SpaceX could soon start launching what the company’s Falcon 9 can’t: heavier national security satellites, large habitats and telescopes, or even humans to deep space.
The Falcon Heavy’s specs are impressive. The three-core rocket boasts 27 engines, more than any other working rocket has used before. Together, these engines provide more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, allowing the vehicle to put more than 140,000 pounds of cargo into lower Earth orbit. That’s more than twice the capability of any rocket currently on the market. And it will do almost as much as NASA’s new huge rocket at a fraction of the price.
Thanks to a directive from the Trump administration, NASA is now focused on returning humans to the Moon. The space agency has been developing its own massive rocket, the Space Launch System, which could be used for lunar missions. When complete, the SLS will be even more powerful than the Falcon Heavy. However, the giant NASA rocket has its share of problems: it’s still years from making its first flight, and won’t carry people until 2022 at the earliest. Plus, early estimates show that the SLS may cost more than 10 times as much to fly than the Falcon Heavy. Incorporating a cheaper rocket may make human Moon missions more affordable.
The SLS has strong support from key members of Congress, so NASA will likely continue to develop it. But once the Falcon Heavy starts flying regularly, the cheap, powerful rocket may be hard for NASA to ignore. “This could make the whole Trump administration initiative to go back to the Moon economically affordable,” Charles Miller, president of space consulting firm NexGen Space LLC and a former member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team, tells The Verge.
SpaceX is known for its budget pricing. One flight of the company’s Falcon 9 starts at just $62 million. That’s a fraction of the cost ULA’s comparable Atlas V rocket, flights of which start at $109 million. And the Falcon Heavy will be cheap, too, starting at around $90 million each flight. SpaceX has also worked to bring down rocket costs even more by designing them to be partially reusable. SpaceX has figured out how to land its first stage boosters back on Earth, in order to fly them again, saving on manufacturing. The Falcon Heavy will be no different. All three of the rocket’s cores will attempt to land on Earth after each flight; the outer cores will head to land while the center core will land on a SpaceX drone ship in the ocean.
Despite its power and price tag, the Falcon Heavy has just two more launches planned for 2018, with another set for next year. (SpaceX also claims the Falcon Heavy will send two tourists around the Moon at some point.) But that’s about it. Some customers bailed when the Falcon Heavy got stuck in development, and it’s possible that others may just want to see the rocket in action first before flying on it. Or maybe there aren’t that many big things to put on it. The Falcon Heavy could soon be certified to fly larger national security satellites that the Falcon 9 can’t lift — but commercial satellite operators may not need that much power right now. No one has requested the Falcon Heavy to lift more than 45,000 pounds, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell told Aviation Week.
But one important potential customer does take a lot of heavy cargo to space: NASA. And the agency’s own rocket is pricey. Not only is the Space Launch System toast after each flight, it’s also racked up a big price tag in development costs: nearly $19 billion over the last decade. NASA estimates that one flight of the SLS will cost about $1 billion, and it will only launch once or twice a year. “When you’re talking about the differences in budgets, it’s phenomenal how less expensive Falcon Heavy is compared to a government rocket like SLS,” Laura Forczyk, a space consultant and owner of space research and consulting firm Astralytical, tells The Verge.
NASA is expected to do big things, but with flat budgets for the next five years, according toSpace News. And the agency is going to need more than just a transport system. It’s going to need landers, habitats, and more to keep people alive on the Moon. There are even plans to build a new space station around the Moon called the Deep Space Gateway, where astronauts can live and train for missions. There’s no extra cash for these projects, and NASA needs to free up money somehow to make all this happen. The administration may want to do that by ending funding for the International Space Station, but using cheaper rockets could also do the trick.
The SLS will be able to lift more massive pieces than the Falcon Heavy can; a final version of the rocket will be able to carry more than 280,000 pounds to lower Earth orbit (about as much as the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon). The SLS is also closely guarded by members of Congress, specifically those who represent Alabama, the state where much of the rocket is being made. But the SLS’s first flights keep being delayed, jeopardizing the rocket’s future. Though Falcon Heavy has had its share of delays, the rocket has at least been built and is ready to fly. “Right now, SLS and Orion are very popular in NASA and government circles, but if the Falcon Heavy and some other commercial heavy lift rockets come into play, what will that mean down the road if SLS is still not operational five, 10 years from now?” says Forczyk.
It’s unlikely that the Falcon Heavy will replace the NASA rocket outright. But the Falcon Heavy could still perform other tasks for NASA, such as sending up pieces of the Deep Space Gateway or sending cargo to the lunar surface. Or it could act like a gas delivery service, sending massive amounts of propellant into orbit to fuel up spacecraft for long journeys to deep space. Plus, SpaceX claims the rocket is at least capable of sending people around the Moon, so why not put them on the surface, too?
NASA already relies on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to send cargo to the International Space Station, and soon the company will be sending astronauts there, too. NASA could use the Falcon Heavy in similar ways. Using the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 together, NASA could go back to the Moon for just $10 billion over a five- to seven-year period, according to a report from Miller of NexGen Space. (NASA’s yearly budget is $19 billion.) “Having affordable commercial heavy-lift is the only thing keeping NASA from going back to the Moon and on to Mars,” says Miller. “NASA has been trying this for over a decade, but it’s been unaffordable. If you can get a heavy lift launch vehicle for under $100 million it changes everything.”
Of course, the government decides whether NASA can use the Falcon Heavy. And there’s always the possibility that next week’s launch goes wrong. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has expressed concern that the vehicle won’t make it to orbit on its first launch. If that happens, SpaceX will need to fly the Falcon Heavy a few more times until it’s deemed ready for commercial flight.
But if it does fly well, SpaceX will send a powerful message to the spaceflight world — and NASA may like what it sees.
Photo credit: Space X