SpaceX Falcon Heavy take-off

Analysis: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch signals new directions

Image credit: Getty Images

NewSpace company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launched its first Falcon Heavy on 6 February 2018. We consider the impact of this ‘techno-media event’ on the space industry and beyond.

For any brown pelicans taking the afternoon sun on Florida’s Merritt Island, the ignition of the 27 rocket engines at the base of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy must have come as a shock. To the expectant crowds, it was no surprise but a nonetheless riveting debut performance.

SpaceX boss Elon Musk had downplayed expectations in advance of the demonstration flight, saying, “I would consider it a win if it just clears the pad”, but promised followers an exciting launch either way. It was certainly that.

This maiden launch can be viewed through two separate lenses. The first and arguably most important is the industry view; in other words, what a successful launch of a Falcon Heavy - delayed significantly from its intended introduction in 2013 - means for the satellite launch industry.

Apart from reliability and cost, the launch business is focused on mass - the amount of payload delivered to a given orbital height. Take low Earth orbit, home to the International Space Station or a future broadband satellite constellation, as an example. Current ‘heavy launchers’, such as Europe’s Ariane 5 and America’s Delta IV Heavy, can lift around 20 tonnes to LEO; according to SpaceX, its Falcon Heavy can deliver 63.8 tonnes. For geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the most popular delivery point for larger commercial satellites, the respective capabilities are around 10 tonnes for Ariane 5 and 26.7 tonnes for Falcon Heavy.

Alternatively, the Falcon can launch 16.8 tonnes to Mars, which is about four times the mass of the Mars Science Laboratory mission that delivered the Curiosity rover. Given the US military’s penchant for large satellites it could even become the darling of the Department of Defense (DoD). Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, Commander of the 45th Space Wing, said before launch that the USAF is “excited about Falcon Heavy”, which could “open up the aperture for additional DoD launches”.

Whether the payload is a Mars lander, geostationary communications satellite, LEO-based imaging constellation or pizza-delivery capsule to the ISS, the Falcon Heavy represents a huge boost to space science and commerce alike.

Moreover, it’s cheaper. While many things affect the final price, a rough guide shows that an eight-tonne satellite could be launched to GTO for about $90m on the Falcon (about half the cost of an Ariane 5). Thus, if Falcon Heavy can match the reliability of the market-leading Ariane, it could significantly reduce the cost of going to space, in turn improving the viability of future space applications, from asteroid mining to space tourism.

A crucial factor in a launch vehicle’s commercial success is the opinion of the space insurance industry, since comprehensive cover is required as both a risk-mitigation measure and bank-loan guarantee. David Wade, Space Underwriter at Atrium Space Insurance Consortium, believes that SpaceX has done “a tremendous job” in a short period, to the point that the Falcon 9 is now “firmly established as a workhorse of the commercial space sector”.

Wade recognises the general impression that the Falcon Heavy is “simply three Falcon 9’s strapped together” but knows that it is “anything but that simple”, not least because of the complex structural dynamics and aerodynamic interactions between the three boosters. On balance, he is reassured by the recent ‘proof of concept’.

“In the past”, Wade says, “we have seen new vehicles felled by a single line of software code carried over from a previous programme. This test-flight dispelled such concerns for the Falcon Heavy”.

The second lens through which the launch may be viewed is that held by the general public, a body which ultimately controls national space budgets and may even, in future, be tempted to visit space ‘on their own dollar’. Notwithstanding its obvious technical expertise, the way SpaceX has managed this first airing of its long-awaited heavy-lifter is a breath of fresh air typical of a NewSpace company.

Consider the showmanship of its live broadcast. Young, excitable and nervous SpaceX engineers deliver a social-media inspired but technically capable presentation of the pre-launch events. In the background, hundreds of company employees cheer each and every countdown marker and stage-pressurisation event.

The launch, from former Apollo/Shuttle pad 39A, goes well and two of the three booster-stages return to Cape Canaveral to land, in synchrony, on adjacent concrete pads. The payload fairing is jettisoned to reveal Musk’s own bright red Tesla Roadster ‘driven’ by a spacesuit-clad mannequin nicknamed ‘Starman’ as David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ plays.

Another camera transmits live shots over Starman’s shoulder showing the car’s display screen, which reads ‘Don’t Panic!’. Later images show the Earth drifting serenely by, as if the Tesla is embarking on some pangalactic road trip. In fact, as confirmed in a later Tweet from Musk, the upper-stage-with-Tesla-attached was on course to fly by Mars and out towards the asteroid belt.

This is ‘light-years’ from the Nasa-style experience to which we have become accustomed. But this is NewSpace at its best: ticking the box of technical excellence and having fun at the same time. As Musk said after the launch, “it’s kind of silly and fun, but I think silly and fun things are important”. Doubtless channelling his inner Bowie, he added: “It’s still tripping me out!”.

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