Falcon Heavy will change spaceflight less than you think

The first Falcom Heavy launch was a major technical milestone, but the vehicle may not have that big an impact on government or commercial launch markets. (credit: SpaceX)

First things first: SpaceX should be congratulated for the successful first flight of the Falcon Heavy. Developing a new launch vehicle, even one derived from an existing, successful one, is a major accomplishment, magnified here by the sheer scale of the vehicle. Remember when people were skeptical that the rocket, with its 27 first stage engines, could ever get off the ground?

This success has led to a wave of punditry about the future of spaceflight in the Falcon Heavy era, including in this publication. Some proclaim that the rocket will open a new golden age of solar system exploration. Others see the rocket as a death warrant for NASA’s Space Launch System.

But technical achievements aren’t enough to ensure programmatic success. While many see Falcon Heavy as a revolutionary achievement, it’s more of an evolutionary one. It will probably have less of an effect than the smaller Falcon 9, or the future “Big Falcon Rocket”, or BFR, the company is developing. There are several reasons why the Falcon Heavy won’t have nearly as big an impact of the space industry as many space enthusiasts believe.

There’s limited demand for the Falcon Heavy

When SpaceX introduced the Falcon Heavy several years ago, it appeared to be a necessary vehicle to serve the full range of payloads seeking launch. The original Falcon 9 could carry satellites weighing no more than about 4,500 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit. That meant that the bulk of the geostationary communications satellite market, the largest existing sector of the commercial launch market, was out of reach of the Falcon 9, particularly as GEO satellites grew heavier to meet the demands of television broadcasting and broadband Internet access.

Upgrades to the Falcon 9, though, have increased that performance: the company now states on its website that the rocket can place 8,300 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit. (That may require expending the rocket rather than reserving propellant for a droneship landing.) That’s more than enough to handle any commercial geostationary satellite today. A Falcon Heavy could presumably allow SpaceX to launch two such satellites at a time, as Arianespace has done for years with the Ariane 5, but that doesn’t really create demand.

Moreover, the commercial geostationary satellite market has been in the doldrums for the last several years, with orders for new satellites at historically low levels. Those low orders can be blamed on everything from the long-term cycles of fleet replacement by major satellite operators to concerns about the effect of new technologies and non-geostationary satellite constellations.

Those upcoming constellations could be a source of future Falcon Heavy launches. However, the Falcon Heavy may be oversized for many of them, which plan to use relatively small satellites. A single Falcon Heavy might be too much rocket even to populate an entire plane of a constellation. Also, SpaceX is planning its own broadband constellations, which may dissuade rivals from relying on the company for launching their own.

Indeed, the Falcon Heavy is betting on big payloads in an era when the demand is shifting to smaller satellites. That’s triggered development of dozens of small launch vehicles to offer a right-sized launch capability for those satellites. It remains to be seen if those vehicles can find business success—SpaceX long ago abandoned its small Falcon 1 and has shown no interest in reviving it—but the Falcon Heavy won’t serve that market.

One area where Falcon Heavy may find business is in the launch of large national security payloads. The rocket offers a much greater performance than United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy at a lower price. Yet, the Pentagon doesn’t buy many Delta IV Heavy rockets, and comments by some in the Defense Department suggest they’re moving away from large, and vulnerable, spacecraft to swarms of smaller ones. So the Falcon Heavy might steal the Delta IV Heavy’s market, but not generate more demand for such payloads.

Falcon Heavy won’t kill SLS

Many space enthusiasts see the SLS as not just a Delta IV Heavy killer, but also a Space Launch System killer. After all, the Falcon Heavy provides heavy-lift performance today while the first SLS launch is likely two years (or more) away, and at a fraction of the price. What’s not to like?

First of all, SLS will have capabilities that the Falcon Heavy lacks. It can carry heavier payloads, even in its initial Block 1 configuration. Moreover, it can carry larger payloads as well: designs exist for payload fairings up to 10 meters in diameter, while the Falcon Heavy is using the Falcon 9’s 5.2-meter fairing. SpaceX could design larger fairings for the Falcon Heavy, provided they’re technically feasible (and Musk has hinted in recent tweets slightly larger fairings are in the works), but may never get as large as the SLS.

But there’s also the political dimension. Many believe that the mere existence of the Falcon Heavy, flinging a sports car towards Mars, will somehow convince the White House and Congress that the SLS is no longer needed. This is remarkably naïve. Congress in particular supports SLS not because as they see it as the only option for carrying out human space exploration, but because it serves their constituents’ needs in terms of contracts and jobs.

Despite all of SpaceX’s successes in recent years, skepticism about the company remains strong among many key members of Congress. Witness the questions raised about the company after the reported failure of the Zuma mission last month, which the company said was not its responsibility. (If it had been the Falcon 9 at fault, it’s unlikely they would have launched a commercial Falcon 9 mission for SES at the end of January, or this Falcon Heavy mission.) The company’s delays on its commercial crew program also generate criticism, even though Boeing is also suffering setbacks on its vehicle.

No one should serious believe that the support for SLS from key members of Congress, like Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) or Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chair key appropriations subcommittees, is any weaker now than it was prior to February 6. One can question whether SLS is a worthwhile program to be spending billions of dollars on, but it’s hard to see that funding going away any time soon.

Falcon Heavy is a dead end for exploration

Falcon Heavy also represents something of the end of the line of the Falcon family. Although Musk raised the idea in one press conference of a “Super Heavy” rocket that could carry even heavier payloads by adding additional side boosters, the focus for SpaceX is on the BFR. Musk claimed that suborbital test flights of the upper stage of the BFR could begin as soon as next year (emphasis on “as soon as” given the nature of SpaceX’s schedules.)

SpaceX is putting little emphasis on the rocket on its future Mars-centric plans. The company dropped plans last year to use the rocket for its Red Dragon missions to land Dragon spacecraft on the surface of Mars, demonstrating technologies like supersonic retropropulsion. And Musk said recently there are no plans to certify the rocket for carrying people, ruling out the use of the Falcon Heavy for launching a Crew Dragon mission on a mission around the Moon the company announced just a year ago.

So, Falcon Heavy will be little more than an interim vehicle, whose original scope has been eclipsed on one side by the advances of the Falcon 9 and, on the other, by its plans for the BFR. It will be able to launch some large commercial satellites, and perhaps replace the Delta IV Heavy for large military payloads. The Falcon Heavy remains a remarkable technological accomplishment, but it’s unlikely to have the long-term impact of either the Falcon 9 or, if successful, the BFR.


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