The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISDC 2024

Falcon Heavy illustration
The Falcon Heavy will be able to launch up to 53,000 kilograms for on the order of $100 million, a capability that could radically alter the US aerospace industry. (credit: SpaceX)

Following SpaceX down the rabbit hole

Bookmark and Share

In a month unusually full of significant anniversaries, April 5th—the day SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced his company’s plans to develop the Falcon Heavy rocket—may eventually prove to be a red-letter date of sorts in the American space history, one of a number that are beginning to accrue to his company. While SpaceX had made no secret of its plans to pursue a heavy version of the Falcon 9 booster, the numbers attributed to it did come as something of a surprise: 53,000 kilograms to LEO at about $100 million per launch for commercial customers.

Assuming the Falcon Heavy’s numbers are accurate, the pricing and performance figures offered in Musk’s presentation raise a number of very interesting and, no doubt to some, uncomfortable questions.

No doubt it was a surprise United Launch Alliance (ULA) officials were not very happy to hear, given the fact that the Delta IV served as Musk’s point of comparison, and it wasn’t pretty. In short, according to Musk, the Falcon Heavy will offer approximately twice the performance of the Delta IV Heavy at approximately one third the cost; or, as he helpfully added, six times the value. Determining the actual price of a Delta or Atlas is not an easy proposition, a tactic Musk compared to a rug bazaar in that the price is determined by what the vendor perceives the buyer can pay. At the moment, the buyer is the US government, and it is paying dearly.

Assuming the Falcon Heavy’s numbers are accurate, the pricing and performance figures offered in Musk’s presentation raise a number of very interesting and, no doubt to some, uncomfortable questions. They also have the potential to completely alter the basis of what currently passes for space policy.

First, the uncomfortable questions. Given the fact that the SpaceX Falcon rockets are not based on any radical technological breakthrough that lowered their costs, one has to ask just how bad a deal has the taxpayer been getting from the Atlas V and Delta IV, products of the legacy aerospace establishment? Soon to be deprived of the hyper-expensive Space Shuttle as their own point of comparison, the answer would appear to be much worse than we ever imagined.

Just a day prior to the SpaceX announcement, Spaceflight Now featured another in a series of stories citing concerns that rapidly escalating launch costs are limiting the options for future NASA science missions. The specific culprit in this case was again the Atlas V, NASA and DOD’s workhorse launcher at the moment. After already escalating prices from $124 million to $187 million over a three-year time frame, ULA is forecasting further increases of 17% for 2016 launches and 30% for 2018 against current numbers.

In sharp contrast, at his press conference the following day, when questioned about the persistent sniping from competitors that SpaceX would eventually have to increase its prices, Musk observed that this was a case of wishful thinking and steadfastly maintained that the Falcon 9 will continue to be priced around $50 million, with allowances for inflation. (SpaceX pricing reflects government imposed “Mission Assurance” charges for NASA/DOD launches as a separate line item.) He then went on to remind the press that his company’s goal is to continue to lower the cost of access to space because high launch costs were “the fundamental factor preventing humanity from becoming a spacefaring civilization.” It is noteworthy, then, that according to the numbers Musk submitted, the Falcon Heavy will break the long sought threshold of $1,000 per pound to LEO. While none but the most wild-eyed space enthusiasts would expect a headlong rush of new spacecraft development based on this announcement alone, achieving this “mythical no more” goal is likely to have a profound effect if and when the vehicle proves itself.

In case his competition actually is engaged in wishful thinking, it might be worth remembering that Musk did not have to enter the launch business. As a true believer, with the means to advance his goal, Elon Musk is maintaining a consistent position, one that is not likely to change as long as he retains control of the company. It is for that very reason—shepherding SpaceX’s “philosophical and philanthropic goals”—that Musk is equally unlikely to sell. Competitors both domestic and international have a choice of either lowering their own launch costs or achieving, through increased subsidies and political influence, what they cannot achieve through technology and sound business operations.

Despite—or perhaps because of—decades of accumulated experience and hundreds of billions of dollars in cost-plus contacts, the legacy US aerospace establishment is hopelessly out of touch with what the floor of launch prices should actually be.

The time may have already passed on the latter alternative. Several times during his press conference, Musk stated that SpaceX was in late-stage discussions with both commercial and governmental buyers for Falcon Heavy launches, and seemed to imply that both were waiting on a successful initial launch to proceed. Furthermore, in a surprisingly aggressive marketing bulletin posted to its website after the press conference, SpaceX actively solicits the DOD business now held exclusively by ULA. Pulling no punches, SpaceX highlights not only the dramatic per launch price differential, including the underreported one-billion-plus annual subsidy, but also upcoming price increases as well.

It did not take long for the announcement and marketing effort to achieve a public effect, with Space News reporting April 14th that NASA, DOD, and the NRO would be publishing a memorandum of agreement to “establish rules” that would “allow new entrants to compete for near term launch missions.” While SpaceX will have to complete at least one more successful launch of the Falcon 9 to even qualify for consideration under the current National Launch Services contract, it will justifiably take a number of successful flights before it is trusted with high value military or planetary science missions. With fourteen Falcon 9 flights scheduled over the next three years, however, in addition to the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX holds the key to its own future success.

Essentially, the advent of the Falcon Heavy only serves to further confirm what appears to be the inescapable conclusion that despite—or perhaps because of—decades of accumulated experience and hundreds of billions of dollars in cost-plus contacts, the legacy US aerospace establishment is hopelessly out of touch with what the floor of launch prices should actually be based on current technology.

If this is the case, why, then, should NASA be required to build a new heavy lift vehicle out of old components from that same establishment, presumably managed by the same contractors, when a plausible alternative is readily at hand?

To be clear, the performance offered by the Falcon Heavy does not constitute true heavy lift as the term is generally used, a distinction that SpaceX is careful to make on its own web site. The cleverly worded footnote goes on to state that SpaceX supports the goal of 70–130 metric ton heavy lift as “the best way to conduct a large number of human missions to Mars.” In other words, for anything closer in, the Falcon Heavy will do nicely. Without directly challenging stated policy, SpaceX is raising an excellent point.

The Falcon Heavy’s 53 metric tons to LEO is twice the capacity of the shuttle, and half that of the Saturn V. It is also considerably less than the congressionally mandated heavy lift capacity of 70–130 metric tons. Absent a Mars program however, it seems reasonable to ask is that capacity absolutely necessary? It certainly does not seem to be a requirement for anything along the “flexible path.” If the Falcon Heavy has a critical limiting factor, it would appear to be the volume limitations imposed by the standard payload faring. Nevertheless, at 4.6 meters in diameter and an overall length of 11.4 meters, and a price per launch of no more than $125 million, one suspects a space program actually focused on exploration could accomplish quite a bit within these constraints.

While Elon Musk is hardly a smooth, fast-talking pitchman, with numbers such as these, and an audience that can presumably do basic arithmetic, he does not have to be. In case anyone missed the point, he threw out several potential uses for the new Falcon Heavy sure to whet the appetites of both crewed and robotic space advocates. First, two Falcon Heavy launches could field a return to the Moon, though not necessarily the same mission architecture as contemplated by Project Constellation.

Second, a single Falcon Heavy could launch a Mars sample return mission. Long the holy grail of many planetary scientists, and a logical precursor to a human Mars exploration, sample return has languished for decades, a victim of the outrageous costs of space launch, and the lack of large enough rocket to accomplish the mission in one launch (see “Tough decisions ahead for planetary exploration”, The Space Review, April 4, 2011). Musk is offering a solution to both problems. Also possible with a single launch: a first ever human mission to an asteroid.

Another possibility that went unmentioned in the press conference was what effect Falcon Heavy might have on the costs of supporting the International Space Station. The ability to launch twice the supply capacity provided by the shuttle at something on the order of 20 percent of the cost changes the calculus entirely. So much so in fact, it opens the door for contemplating an entirely different future for ISS in which it never follows Mir into the Pacific.

Even as eulogies for the shuttle program are coming in torrents, and the orbiters are assigned to museums, SpaceX is offering an entirely different vision of what the next era might look like.

Beyond these possibilities, what is perhaps even more significant about Musk’s presentation is that it also calls into question the entire rationale upon which the current space policy is based. Following conclusions offered by the Augustine Committee, the Obama Administration cancelled Project Constellation as unaffordable under existing budget limits, and supported instead the ambling, but cost-contained “flexible path.” If the Falcon Heavy is available, however, the rationale for selecting the flexible path—because it’s the only thing we can afford—simply doesn’t exist. A return to the Moon becomes not only obviously more affordable, but also available on a much, much quicker time frame, which should allay fears that the United States is in danger of losing the mantle of leadership in space exploration. For an administration that frequently uses the term “pressing the reset button,” there is no time like the present to do so, particularly when one considers the alternatives if it does not.

Assume for the moment that Congress gets its way, and NASA begins building its shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle with all of the ongoing infrastructure and support costs that entails. Even the most optimistic estimate would put the first flight no sooner than 2017, with further schedule slips a strong possibility and major cost overruns a virtual certainty. Given the fact that the Falcon Heavy is being privately financed and does not depend on politically vulnerable public funding for critical development, sooner or later it will fly.

Moreover, even though the first Falcon Heavy launch is likely to slip, any NASA vehicle is likely to slip even more. In that case, the “gap” Congress really needs to worry about is the one in which SpaceX is flying the Falcon Heavy four or five years before their own vehicle ever gets off the ground. In the meantime, SpaceX will presumably be launching its contracted Commercial Resupply Services missions to ISS, and possibly astronauts as well, all on the core vehicle upon which the Falcon Heavy is based. In justifying its own heavy lift, NASA would be arguing with itself. Occurring against the backdrop of seemingly intractable budget problems, the NASA vehicle will make an easy target for elimination, particularly when there is virtually no hope of actually using it to do anything the Falcon Heavy cannot do. Losing one major launch program before it makes it off the ground was bad enough; could the agency really afford to lose another?

If nothing else, this seems to be very curious moment in the evolution of space exploration that took a momentous step forward 50 years ago this month, and yet another 20 years later. Even as eulogies for the shuttle program are coming in torrents, and the orbiters are assigned to museums, SpaceX is offering an entirely different vision of what the next era might look like. For a certain generation, this might be called a “Matrix Moment,” a singular occasion that calls for a decision to take either take the blue pill or the red, either to continue on with the status quo in a dream world, or to wake up and face the reality that awaits. SpaceX seems to be offering just that choice, and one way or another the decision must be made.

In the final analysis, it is up to SpaceX. The hard truth is that if the Falcon Heavy comes in at something close to the announced development schedule, and somewhere close to projected price, and without suffering catastrophic failures, then the winds of change that are now an ever-so-stiffening breeze may well become a full-on gale that the aerospace establishment, as we now know it, will not survive.