Falcon Heavy

What is it good for?

SpaceX’s plans, from Falcon 1 to Falcon 5, to Dragonlab, and perhaps now this, tend to outpace their accomplishments. And that’s a good thing.

[Update a few minutes later]

A preview of the flight.

Only pad 39A is outfitted for crew flights, which are expected to start later this year (an ambitious timeline, according to the Government Accountability Office). Should the Falcon Heavy damage 39A, how will that affect NASA’s commercial crew program, which has been waiting to launch astronauts from American soil since 2011? It’s a fair question, and you can bet NASA officials will be watching this demo flight with clenched teeth.

Maybe, but with the successful static fire, I don’t think it should be as big a concern.

39 thoughts on “Falcon Heavy”

  1. Another possibility that’s not been widely considered is tourism, the Russians are now proposing flights with space walks to tourists for $100m, SpaceX could certainly do it for less if the US Government were to allow it.

  2. Asking what is it good for is like looking at the 747-100 at rollout and saying, “what’s the point?” And I think that happened, but we know the history since. It could be considered overkill, except that it is simpler and more efficient than SLS. So if Falcon Heavy is overkill, SLS is a total waste of taxpayer dollars (which is actually true of the latter).

    1. Sorry, but that’s a really ignorant comment. The Boeing 747 was built with Pan Am as the launch customer; that means that Boeing had sufficient orders from Pan Am that Boeing’s management felt it was a reasonable risk to undertake the 747 development. In a comparison to Falcon Heavy, Musk is almost certainly taking much more risk than Boeing did; I’m not aware that Musk has a backlog of payloads to fill 25 Falcon Heavys (Boeing had 25 orders for the 747 when they launched the program).

  3. The article hits on some existing markets (DOD, research, satellite) but also points out the power of price. It isn’t just price but what customers get for that price. Falcon Heavy could open a lot of doors for markets on the cusp of existence, like private stations, space ships, asteroid prospecting, fuel depots, things like the MEV, space based manufacturing, energy generation, advanced propulsion, ect.

    Whatever happens, it seems as though the Falcon Heavy may have a limited lifespan.

    Well, Musk already said they would make a limited number of them. Considering the schedule slips that are common for SpaceX, who knows how long it will take for BFR/BFS to reach full fruition and whether or not that means FH has a limited lifespan. As long as they turn a profit off of it and learned more about their business, it isn’t wasted effort.

    1. Don’t expect the same delays with BFR that we’ve seen with FH. The main reason FH was delayed was because F9 was becoming more powerful the entire time. BFR doesn’t have that.

      The fact is the FH is obsolete before it flies yet is still better than anything the rest of the industry’s paper rockets.

      If BFR is successful, everything else SpaceX has built will be museum pieces.

      1. That’s true but things could take longer than expected/predicted. It looks like SpaceX is planning to be well prepared for any potential delay.

      2. “If BFR is successful, everything else SpaceX has built will be museum pieces.”

        Is that really true? Isn’t there a market niche for Falcon 9 weight/size payloads? Or maybe Falcon 9 1/2?

        1. According to Musk, BFR will be priced lower than a F9. There could be a niche like there are with launching small sats, where the higher launch cost is worth being able to launch when and to where they want without dealing with waiting and/or sharing. But if the BFR has good turn around time between launches, they might always be able to compete on schedule and price.

          What about the orbital dynamics for things like polar orbits? And would there be corridors available for them from current launch locations?

          1. Because the F9 is not fully reusable the BFR launching just a single smallsat would be cheaper than the F9. As for turn around, Musk needs a lot of BFR just to support his mars plan.

  4. What about Bigelow? Thought he said something about gearing back up when U.S. manned spaceflight became (or neared) a reality again.

    1. Bigelow has said he will put stations in orbit when he is convinced there will be at least 2 US systems available to routinely launch customers to use them, while paying him for their use. With Atlas 5 launching and Falcon 9 launching crew spacecraft this year he has those minimum 2 systems. He has an agreement with ULA to launch 2 BA330A modules in 2020, so that market will open up.

      1. Ir will be good to get real station market numbers rather than back of the napkin fantasies. The Alpha station should be the end of govt. run stations. A govt. module on a commercial station will likely be the new model.

  5. Honestly, I have a hard time imagining SpaceX proceeding with this launch if they didn’t have a very high degree of confidence that it could at least clear the Cape launch area – the costs of losing 39A for any extended period of time are simply too painfully obvious, and unbearable.

    Any failure seems to be much more of a risk later in the launch profile.

    This guarantees nothing, of course; but I think we can at least speak of probabilities. I can’t see SpaceX taking undue risks with 39A. And for that matter, I can’t see NASA (which owns the pad, and has a great deal at stake in its use for Commercial Crew flights) allowing it to proceed if they thought they were.

  6. The most dangerous parts, it seems to me, are either aerodynamics near max-Q, or the shedding of the side boosters. Both of these are sufficiently downrange to not risk the pad.

  7. Fantastic plan. If he achieves a Hohmann Transfer Orbit then any future Mars cyclers might co-orbit with it. Billboard In Spaaaaace!

    Okay I’m joking, but it’s a fun thought!

      1. BFS will co-orbit with the roadster and BFS passengers will have opportunity to EVA and “test drive” it while having their picture taken. Some may want to buy one when they get to
        Mars. Marketing marketing!!!

  8. That’s a pretty great article.

    However, what’s missed is the upcoming Starlink constellation. It will be a massive consumer of FH flights. There are literally thousands of satellites needing rides to orbit in the next 3 years. Followed by twice that many the following 2 years — plus replacements. The rest of the manifest is a rounding error.

    Arguably, all of SpaceX is about closing the business case for Starlink. The rest of the business for SpaceX is mere startup money getting ready for Starlink — NASA included.

    NASA is to SpaceX like IBM was to Microsoft. Absolutely critical at the start, but increasingly irrelevant, without self awareness of this fact.

  9. “What is it good for?”

    If Falcon heavy can lift 63,800kg to LEO, it’s like a small Saturn V which can lift about 100 tons LEO. And one Saturn V can send crew to the Moon and return them and one smaller Falcon Heavy should able to send crew to the Moon and not return them. But if there is rocket fuel available
    on Lunar surface, one Falcon Heavy could enough send crew to the Moon and return them.
    If instead of rocket fuel available on lunar surface, if the rocket fuel was available, at LEO or lunar orbit, likewise one could land crew on the Moon and return them to Earth with one Falcon Heavy launch.

    Or since about 2/3rd of Saturn V, one use 3 Falcon Heavy, with one to launch fuel and two used for two crewed trips to the Moon.
    And from there, think about how to do it best. Ie, could land 2 or 3 crew on the Moon and return 7 crew to Earth, needing one earth return vehicle. One could think about where best place to transfer rocket fuel or dock with a booster- LEO, Lunar orbit, Earth/Moon L1/2, lunar orbit, or lunar surface [or a combination of locations]. Now a possible advantage of Earth/Moon L1/2 and/or lunar orbit is you use ion engine to deliver bulk item to these locations- launch to GTO, and use ion rockets to get the rest of the way there. Time is important so one should use powerful ion rockets {I don’t think one wants to take months to get there, like Smart-1 did: “After 42 minutes it was released into a geostationary transfer orbit of 7,035 × 42,223 km. From there it used its Solar Electric Primary Propulsion (SEPP) to gradually spiral out during thirteen months.”- wiki]. A problem or advantage of ion engine, is one use the ion engine and solar panels for years of operation. or for a one use only operation, would be a disadvantage of them.

    Anyways, I think NASA should develop a LOX depot in LEO, as part of lunar exploration program and explore lunar poles starting robotic missions and ending with crewed sortie to lunar polar region which bring back lunar samples. And once crewed missions and sample returns are completed, NASA should start Mars exploration. And Mars exploration would continue to use depots and robotic exploration coupled with human presence on Mars.
    If that were to happen what could use Heavy Falcon for?
    My rough answer is to use Heavy Falcon whenever possible, instead needed more SLS launches.
    Or I won’t battle against using SLS, but one would limit it’s use as it’s planned to use- one launch every two years, and would want more rocket launches per year to do the lunar exploration program, and then Mars exploration program. So use SLS when available and use commercial launch also.
    Now perhaps robotic exploration of the Moon can use hoppers- land someplace and then hop to other parts of the Lunar surface- so Heavy Falcon or SLS could be used for that. One also have multiple robotic missions landing in a region of a lunar pole.
    One also have some gold plate lunar lander- nuclear powered or whatever.

    1. The point being, anything going to the moon and beyond creates a market for a LEO/Lagrange depot which will be a warehouse for more than just fuel.

      It could be an independent operation buying supplies from multiple vendors. It would likely have workers and tourists.

      Chicken and lobster will sell for the same price.

      1. “The point being, anything going to the moon and beyond creates a market for a LEO/Lagrange depot which will be a warehouse for more than just fuel.”

        I think it makes sense for NASA to start depot in LEO- but tend to think NASA shouldn’t make depots elsewhere.
        NASA builds and operates depot in LEO. The idea it’s not “profitable” rather it’s mostly about getting to point of moving it from experimental to an operational status. Or NASA demonstrate a way it can be done, and then, commercial depots can be made elsewhere- and obviously such commercial depots would be focused on being profitable.
        Commercial depots in Lagrange points makes a lot sense, due to location being that one get to from any launch site on Earth.
        In comparison, LEO depots are related to the inclination launch from a spaceport.
        Though if Musk new rocket is first to gets to point refueling in LEO- then that cancels out any NASA need of bringing any LEO depot to an operational status- or shouldn’t interfere with the market of this American commercial enterprise.

  10. As I understand it, Falcon Heavy will be the fourth most powerful rocket ever launched.

    1. Saturn V
    2. N-1
    3. Space Shuttle

    I’m not certain how Saturn V and N-1 compared in terms of total mass, liftoff thrust, and payload weight. (Obviously, the N-1 never actually orbited a payload.)

      1. Here is what I got from Wikipedia. I’m not an engineer, so I’m sure there are better sources elsewhere.

        Mass: 6,060,000 lbs.
        Liftoff thrust: 10,200,000 lbs.
        Payload to LEO: 209,000 lbs. (Of course the actual payload was 0)

        Saturn V
        Mass: 6,540,000 lbs.
        Liftoff thrust: 7,890,000 lbs.
        Payload to LEO: 310,000 lbs.

        Mass: 5,300,000 lbs.
        Liftoff thrust: 7,800,000 lbs.
        Payload to LEO: 220,000 lbs. (Required upper stage or payload to perform final orbital insertion)

        Mass: 4,470,000 lbs.
        Liftoff thrust: 6,780,000 lbs.
        Payload to LEO: 60,600 lbs. (not counting the orbiter)

        Falcon Heavy
        Mass: 3,132,301 lbs.
        Liftoff thrust: 5,130,000 lbs.
        Payload to LEO: 140,700 lbs.

        The Saturn V is still pretty impressive. It was the heaviest vehicle listed, but still had the best performance. That was probably due to its superior upper stages (the S-II being an underappreciated workhorse).

  11. “Build it and they will come.” With the increased lift capability will come increased payloads to match.

  12. Miniaturization costs money. A lot of money. It also creates additional points of failure. Lots of options to take advantage of cheap heavy lift to reduce costs elsewhere.

  13. FH fitted with a high energy upper stage could be interesting.

    FH fitted with a fully recoverable/reusable upper stage could also be interesting. They’d be a large payload hit, of course. The question for this (or for F9 with a similar upper stage) is how much traffic there is to LEO to justify such a launcher. I am assuming the payload penalty for GTO would be too high.

    1. “… how much traffic there is to LEO to justify such a launcher.”
      And how much traffic there is through LEO to justify such a launcher.

      So if traffic to Moon and Mars, or traffic to GEO, or to LEO.or suborbital travel of going from say LA to New York via suborbital trajectories,

      And to get traffic, one needs markets. And most significant market presently, is to GEO- because a geostationary orbit provides and fixed location relative to a region on Earth. But you also cover a region on earth from LEO, if have enough satellites overlapping their orbits over a region. And the lower the orbit, the more you need, and less distance to relay the signal- less delay for internet.
      But it doesn’t seem to me LEO and GEO can provide enough traffic, whereas a suborbital travel market could provide enough. And/or Lunar water mining could provide enough traffic.

      Lunar water mining market, would make the Moon a viable location, and it can provide gateway to rest of solar system. And most importantly can lead to Earth having Space Power satellites.
      I don’t think just a suborbital travel market can lead to SPS, but just a suborbital travel market can lower costs to getting to the Moon and/or
      Mars- and both, or either Moon or Mars [or asteroids] can lead to SPS for Earth.

      1. Short term, getting water from the moon might make sense. Long term it does not for as Zubrin pointed out, if they found concrete on the moon they’d mine it for water. If the moon ever becomes a viable destination it could not economically allow any water to be taken away.

        1. “Short term, getting water from the moon might make sense. ”

          Getting water from the Moon doesn’t mean anything, the question is can economically mine it. Minable water means economically mine water. If getting some water [economically] means say 100,000 tonnes at say 1/2 million per ton, that’s 50,000 million dollars of water or 50 billion, then one could say that is all that’s needed. But it doesn’t make any sense why you stop mining the lunar water.
          But say you only want to look at 20 years in the future- then 100,000 tons is probably more than you need.
          Or generally think of it as starting with about 50 tons per year and roughly double production per year: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, and enough if market for it: 1600, 3200, but probably not enough market and it’s more like 1200, 1600, and 2000 and etc. And generally shouldn’t use as much as 10000 tons within 10 years.
          And I would say minimal amount of water of site to mine is around 10,000 tons. Or 10,000 tons which was easier to mine, and site had 100,000 tons but was harder to mine- you pick site of 10,000 tons, and hard part is mining the first 1000 tons [and selling the rocket of it].
          Or make or break occurs in less than 5 years. Which is basically have shown there is enough future demand for lunar water- and company which can do this should worth about 10 billion dollars.
          Though I don’t think one company should do everything and just talking about the company which mines water and it might not be splitting the water to make rocket fuel.
          Instead it could be focused on mining water [and mining other things].
          A problem is getting enough electrical power- splitting 100 tons of water per year requires more than 100 Kw. And one needs of growth of electrical to be available.
          And I think quite possible that companies involved with lunar activity could regard what they do on the moon as step towards doing things not related to the Moon.

          -Long term it does not for as Zubrin pointed out, if they found concrete on the moon they’d mine it for water. If the moon ever becomes a viable destination it could not economically allow any water to be taken away.-

          I think you take away as much lunar water as you can- which is probably millions of tons. And I think the Moon will end up with more water than it started with. Because eventually water in space will cheap, and eventually landing and leaving the Moon will be very cheap.
          The significant of the Moon is it’s where one starts- you can mine the least amount of water and have it be at high price- $500 per kg- and you need rocket fuel at the lunar surface.
          Or if mining water from a space rock, the space rock is not the market for the rocket fuel- you have bring it somewhere- like high earth orbit where rocket fuel can used [say to go to Mars or lunar surface]. And got all the time involved- which basically means one has sell a lot of water to make money.
          With Moon one going to have problems getting enough demand for lunar water and lunar rocket fuel- but less problematic as compared to mining water from asteroid.
          So advantage of moon is it’s where to start market for rocket fuel made in space.
          But it would be helpful or needed if one first starts market in space of rocket fuel made and shipped from earth- or need depots, first.

          Anyways one would mine concrete or moist dirt on the Moon.
          But I would say you can’t mine concrete or moist dirt in Mars.
          Water on Mars has to plentiful and cheap- $500 per kg, is far too expensive on Mars- in regards to Mars settlements. NASA exploration it could $5000 per kg or more.
          Another concern about Mars settlement is getting low price electrical power. Lunar water mining could start with $100 per kw hour- and be able to mine concrete for water.

          A thing about the Moon is that it could be economy supported or based on solar energy. Or solar energy could used to make solar panels [or solar power plants]. And can’t do this at earth surface.
          One can do this on the Moon because you can have polar solar grid which supplies constant electrical power.
          With Mars one also have polar solar grid- though radius of grid is much bigger. But anywhere on Mars one can get 50% of time getting solar energy and there should locations which do better than this. Perhaps have use nuclear energy, or perhaps Mars will have SPS before Earth does.

          1. Nuclear is dense energy and off the earth envirowackos will clearly be seen for the idiots they are. The only way energy is a problem is poor planning.

            Mars water is plentiful and will certainly be cheap precisely because power will be cheap. The cost of power on earth is due to lawyers. Too cheap to meter will become reality when you leave the lawyers behind.

        2. “The cost of power on earth is due to lawyers.”
          The cost of power on earth is cheap, I think you are giving too much credit to lawyers.

          I would give some of the credit to explorers- which generally, are not lawyers.

          The magic of your age is related to the industrial revolution, and we living in good times- largely due or related to, the low cost of energy.
          The industrial revolution uses energy and causes cheap energy to be available, and it’s not chance that the industrial revolution occurred after “The so-called Age of Exploration was a period from the early 15th century and continuing into the early 17th century, during which European ships were traveled around the world to search for new trading routes and partners to feed burgeoning capitalism in Europe.”

          Anyhow, it seems if we get to point of having energy in space as cheap as energy on Earth. And this requires markets [or in other words, capitalism].
          And it seems to me, the plan to lower cost of energy in space is related to the possibility of whether the Moon has minable water.
          And exploration of the lunar polar region is needed to determine if and where there is minable water.

  14. BFR… to understand BFR realize this….
    It costs less than 1M to charter a 747 from LA to China….

    The lowest cost small jet a Phenom 100 honda jet or citation m2 costs > $3.5M

    If you have to throw away all or part of the little jet, the 747 is cheaper…..

    If BFR is really gas and go reusable, it will cost less to launch a cube sat on a BFR that it will to launch it on RocketLabs tiny launcher.

    If Spacex BFR works, then every other launcher company is SOL toast, burnt and obsolete….

    Spacex X BFR is 100% composite tanks…

    When it comes to tanks I think you can have:
    Pick any 2…… I think all 3 is a bridge too far and will be the scheduled killing thorn for both BFR.

    In its inital form BO’s NewGlan will bea F9 competitior, not a BFR. The NewGlen will have a reusable booster….
    But expendable upper stages….

    If BFR is a bridge too far, an interesting compromise might be a F9 or New Glen gas n go reusable first stage married with a simple pressure fed low cost disposable 2nd stage….

    Something like the Falcon 1 , just scaled up and build for fully automated assembly….

    1. I share concern for the composite tank, but Musk has been attacking that problem as his second highest priority (Raptor was first and mostly done.)

      The thing about composites is nobody knows how to make them fail in the manner engineers prefer things to fail (along a graceful curve rather than dramatically.)

      Could the life of FH be extended if BFR is successful? Is there a market for a 50 ton GPS? (General Purpose Ship)

      If limited to the FH radius, I don’t think so. At 9 meters with a half dozen crew perhaps so. So no future for FH in that case either.

      With BFR that 50 ton ship arrives in orbit already fueled.

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