- SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful operational rocket, called Falcon Heavy, on February 6.
- The company recovered two of the rocket’s three reusable boosters and launched founder Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster toward Mars orbit.
- A former Pentagon official said the successful launch “ranks up there with the first Apollo mission.”
- Falcon Heavy could take business away from SpaceX’s biggest current competitor, United Launch Alliance.
On February 6, SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket system in the world.
The 230-foot-tall, three-booster launcher sent a red Tesla Roadster owned by company founder Elon Musk toward Mars orbit with a spacesuit-clad dummy in the driver’s seat.
Musk is the first to admit that an electric car drifting through space is silly. But what Falcon Heavy’s successful launch may mean for the future of spaceflight is anything but a joke.
“It ranks up there with the first Apollo mission. This is a pretty amazing thing,” John Young, a SpaceX consultant and advisory board member, told Business Insider at Cape Canaveral, Florida, hours before the launch.
Young is a former Pentagon undersecretary who was in charge of buying launches and other equipment and services for the Department of Defense. He said Falcon Heavy could majorly disrupt the launch industry because it can lift nearly three times as much payload as the next-best rocket today, yet for about 25% of the cost.
“I think Falcon Heavy and its cost is going to reopen the door to larger satellites with more capability,” Young said, adding that he also expects the launch to impact a lot of young people who watched the event live.
“That’s why I’m willing to use a word like Apollo,” he said. “That inspired a whole generation to go into science, and engineering, and aerospace, and I think today’s event is going to inspire another group of people.”
John Logsdon, a space policy expert, author, and spaceflight historian at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, agreed that the Falcon Heavy launch represents a major moment in spaceflight history.
“The fact that SpaceX, on its own resources, was able to design, develop, and test this thing I think revives a sort of spirit of exploration — that the private sector really is doing some remarkable things,” Logsdon told Business Insider.
What a Falcon Heavy rocket costs and what it can do
During a press conference after the launch, Musk said he spent about $500 million developing Falcon Heavy.
“We tried to cancel the Falcon Heavy program three times at SpaceX. Because it was like, ‘man, this is way harder than we thought,'” Musk told reporters.
Now that SpaceX has proven Falcon Heavy works, it can launch the rocket in a few modes. When all three boosters can be recovered (fully reusable mode), a launch costs $90 million. If all three boosters are ditched in the ocean (fully expendable mode) a mission costs $150 million, according to Musk.
These prices may sound horrendously expensive, but relative to the rest of the launch industry, Young said it’s “game-changing.”
“As a DoD acquisition official, my fundamental mandate was to save money,” Young said. “There’s nothing more exciting to me than the opportunity for both competition and saving money.”
The bargain becomes apparent when looking at what Falcon Heavy can launch: about 70 tons into low-Earth orbit, a space some 250 miles above the planet where many satellites reside.
That mass is roughly equivalent to 50 Tesla Roadsters, 15% of the football-field-size International Space Station, or 10 very large African bush elephants.
Practically, this could mean Falcon Heavy can deploy very large scientific payloads, telecommunications satellites, spy satellites, or possibly hundreds of smaller satellites in one go — perhaps even many or most of the thousands of broadband internet satellites SpaceX hopes to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission to send up in the coming years.
How Falcon Heavy compares to other rockets
The capabilities of Falcon Heavy for its price stand out starkly aside the next-best launch systems.
For example, each NASA space shuttle could carry about 27 tons as its payload — about 40% of a Falcon Heavy’s capacity. Yet including development costs, NASA spent an average of more than $1.7 billion (in 2017 dollars) per space shuttle launch, and the final mission launched in July 2011.
Today, the government uses Delta IV Heavy rockets to launch the heaviest payloads, such as spy satellites, into orbit. Those rockets are made by United Launch Alliance — a joint company formed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2005, and SpaceX’s biggest rival. (SpaceX sued to stop the merger, yet failed.)
A Delta IV Heavy is the only other comparable launcher to Falcon Heavy. It can lift an impressive 32 tons to low-Earth orbit, but that’s still less than half the capacity of a Falcon Heavy — and it costs a lot more.
Young claimed that each Delta IV Heavy launch costs “over $400 million,” a number based in part on historic prices and a recent US Air Force budgeting document (which suggests that may be the case again by 2020). Young also said the price might climb to as much as $900 million or $1 billion per launch in coming years as ULA retires smaller rockets and shrinks the number of launch options in the market.
But Tory Bruno, the CEO of ULA, told Business Insider that he “doesn’t know where this $900 million to $1 billion stuff came from.” He said the cost per Delta IV Heavy launch has actually fallen to about $350 million, and confirmed the price won’t budge much if at all in the near future.
Either way, SpaceX’s $90 million-$150 million price per Falcon Heavy flight is significantly less expensive, even if tens of millions of dollars get added to SpaceX’s price for top-secret payloads (to cover what Bruno calls the “unique requirements” surrounding preparations for national security launches).
Young compared the Delta IV Heavy to a Lamborghini and the Falcon 9 to a Honda Accord.
“[SpaceX is] bringing a great, affordable, reliable launcher to the table in Falcon 9, and I think Falcon Heavy’s going to be the Acura TL version of that,” he added. “That Lamborghini launcher is going to cost about, right now the math says, four to ten times what that Acura or Honda Accord launcher’s going to cost.”
Bruno said ULA will launch two Delta IV Heavy rockets this year, then launch one “every couple of years” until the early 2020s before retiring the system. To replace it, ULA is developing a rocket called Vulcan: a partly reusable, roughly $100-million-per-launch system that will carry more mass than Delta IV Heavy.
Cornering a revived market — and launching a new one
Bruno said ULA’s upcoming Vulcan rocket will offer capabilities for deep-space payloads that SpaceX’s rockets don’t yet have. One problem Musk himself has noted is that the kerosene fuel in Falcon Heavy’s upper-stage rocket can freeze after several hours. This concern that threatened the journey of Musk’s red Tesla Roadster to Mars orbit, though it ultimately didn’t manifest.
ULA’s rockets instead use cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen in their upper stage, avoiding the risk of frozen fuel. Bruno says this lowers the risk of failure for deep-space missions.
“There’s a difference in capability between these two platforms… Sometimes it’s more than just, ‘Hey my rocket’s really big,'” Bruno said. “Sometimes you need the rocket to do some rather unique and exotic things after they’re up in orbit.”
But the Vulcan may not be fully realized until the mid-2020s, and Musk said in 2013 that he hopes to develop a cryogenic upper stage for Falcon Heavy.
“I will seriously eat my hat with a side of mustard if that rocket flies a national security spacecraft before 2023,” Musk tweeted on Monday, referring to Vulcan.
Another up-and-coming competitor to SpaceX is Blue Origin, an aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.
Blue Origin is working on its own relatively affordable heavy-lift rocket system, called New Glenn. That rocket is expected to launch on a fully reusable booster, as is Bezos’ smaller New Shepard rocket system for space tourists. The company is currently very secretive about its progress — Blue Origin declined Business Insider’s request to look inside its new 750,000-square-foot rocket factory in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In all likelihood, New Glenn may not debut for several more years either. That may give SpaceX additional time to corner more of the US commercial satellite market, which Young says the company rescued with the inception of its smaller, reusable, and relatively inexpensive Falcon 9 rocket.
“In 2010, 2011, and 2012, no commercial payloads flew on US launchers. They all flew on French, Chinese, and Russian launchers. In 2018, almost 70% of the commercial payloads are going to fly on US launchers,” Young said, referring mostly to Falcon 9 rockets. “SpaceX, self-investing, has completely recovered the space industry for the US. That’s jobs, that’s the economy.”
With Falcon Heavy’s debut, Young said that door is swinging open farther and giving NASA, the military, and companies a new inexpensive way to send heavier satellites into orbit or to other worlds.
“SpaceX rockets are significantly lower than anybody in the marketplace. It’s been said in the press, by the Chinese, that they are not sure they can compete with SpaceX’s price points,” Young said. “That’s amazing, and that gives me hope the US is going to own the launch market for the next 20-plus years.”