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Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.

 

Thomas Edison

The New SpaceX Falcon Heavy is an absurdly low-cost heavy lift rocket

RATE THIS! +20
Posted in Hardware on 14th Feb, 2018 10:57 PM by Alex Muller

One may criticize the Falcon Heavy rocket for having a short launch manifest, as it has only two confirmed flights in the next year or so. There just aren't that many commercial customers right now for the heavier-lift rocket when a cheaper Falcon 9 or another medium-lift class of booster will suffice.

 

But when one considers the more extreme cases—such as big Department of Defense missions to geostationary orbit or potential human exploration plans—the Falcon Heavy shines.

 

Now that SpaceX's new rocket is finally flying, we can directly compare costs between this new booster and an existing rocket in its class, the Delta IV Heavy, as well as NASA's upcoming heavy lift booster, the Space Launch System. And upon direct comparison, the cost disparities are sobering, proving that commercial development of large rockets likely represents the future of the industry.

 

Delta IV Heavy

 

The Falcon Heavy rocket, with reusable side boosters, costs $90 million. For a fully expendable variant of the rocket, which can lift a theoretical maximum of 64 tons to low-Earth orbit, the price is $150 million. While it is not certified yet, SpaceX says its rocket can hit all Department of Defense reference orbits; however big and gnarly the military wants to build its satellites, and whatever crazy orbit it wants to put them into, the Falcon Heavy can do it.

 

Only the Delta IV Heavy rocket, manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, also has this capability today. It is more expensive, but how much more is a matter of some debate. On Twitter this week, the chief executive of the Colorado-based rocket company, Tory Bruno, said the Delta IV Heavy costs about $350 million per flight. This figure, however, is strikingly lower than what Bruno cited during a congressional hearing in 2015, when he asserted that, "A Delta IV, depending on the configuration, costs between $400 and $600 million dollars."

 

Moreover, the costs referenced above by Bruno exclude a "launch capability contract" worth about $1 billion annually, which the US government pays exclusively to United Launch Alliance. Based upon current law, this contract payment will phase out in 2019 (for Atlas rockets) and 2020 (for Delta rockets), which should increase the costs allocated to each mission. Finally, in 2019, United Launch Alliance will make the last flight of a Delta IV Medium rocket. Once this variant is retired, all of the Delta's fixed costs will fall on the Heavy variant. This will push the per-flight cost above $600 million, and perhaps considerably higher, in the early 2020s.

 

The bottom line is that the Falcon Heavy is a more powerful rocket than the Delta IV Heavy, and by various measures the latter will probably soon cost the US government about five times as much. Put another way, the Department of Defense may have to pay half a billion dollars more for a single launch of certain military satellites on the Delta IV Heavy versus the Falcon Heavy.

 

The primary advantage of the Delta IV Heavy is its launch record. After suffering from a premature engine shutdown during its maiden flight in 2004, the rocket has flown eight successful missions. The Air Force will have to balance its desire for mission success—some payloads are worth $1 billion or more—with the costs of launch. The balance may tip fairly soon in favor of cost.

 

"During my tenure in the Pentagon, I was focused on affordability and driving costs down," John Young, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told Ars. "People, the Congress, and the taxpayers are tired of military systems being so expensive."

 

Space Launch System

 

NASA is also building a heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which has been under development since 2011. This massive booster will have more lift capacity than the Falcon Heavy (70 tons to low-Earth orbit versus 64 tons) and a bigger fairing to accommodate flying a wider payload into space. It also will have a more capable upper stage that will be able to send larger payloads into deeper space.

 

However, these improvements come at a very, very steep price. Consider just a single data point: NASA annually spends about $2.6 billion to develop the SLS rocket and ground launch systems for the massive rocket at Kennedy Space Center. The SLS rocket was originally supposed to launch in 2017, but now the maiden flight of the SLS booster has slipped to 2020. That is understandable; most large aerospace rockets experience delays. However, the cost of a three-year delay is $7.8 billion.

 

For the sake of argument, consider the costs of this three-year delay against the lift capability NASA could have bought by purchasing Falcon Heavy rockets from SpaceX in 2018, 2019, and 2020. That $7.8 billion equates to 86 launches of the reusable Falcon Heavy or 52 of the expendable version. This provides up to 3,000 tons of lift—the equivalent of eight International Space Stations or one heck of a Moon base. Obviously NASA does not need that many launches, but it could buy several Falcon Heavy rockets a year and have the funds to build meaningful payloads to launch on them.

 

In practical terms, NASA has paid nothing for the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket. In fact, by leasing its unused Launch Complex-39A to SpaceX for Falcon Heavy launches, the space agency has said it saves about $1 million in annual maintenance costs on the historical launch complex.

 

"The question is really, why would the government continue to spend billions of dollars a year of taxpayer money for a rocket that will be unnecessary and obsolete?" Lori Garver, a deputy administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013, told Ars. "If the US continues this travesty, it will siphon off even more funds NASA could otherwise use for science missions, transfer vehicles, or landers that actually get us somewhere."


Tags: spaceSpaceXElon MuskFalcon HeavyrocketNASA

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