Falcon Heavy

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by Prasad Ganti

SpaceX added another feather to its cap by launching the Falcon Heavy rocket with a much heavier payload than any other rocket before. Its maiden flight has garnered success. This flight makes it the heaviest launcher in the market and makes Elon Musk of SpaceX a highly accomplished entrepreneur. In addition to building electric cars and solar panels, he is building rockets and also launching satellites to provide internet connections all over the world. He gains my utmost respect.

Much has been written about the launch. Just thought of adding my two cents. Two factors about this launch capture my imagination. Firstly, the price of the launch is very cheap, about a quarter of the next most powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, which is produced by joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. And Falcon Heavy can launch twice the payload as Delta IV.

Secondly, SpaceX has componentized their launchers. Falcon Heavy uses the same booster as the Falcon 9. It has 3 of the Falcon 9 boosters strapped together. Each booster with 9 Merlin engines. The engines and the Falcon 9 booster become like Lego blocks which can be used to put together different structures in future. The Big F rocket which is part of Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars will use the same Lego blocks to build a bigger structure. No prizes for guessing what the F means!

A major reason for the cheap cost of launches is SpaceX’s ability to reuse the first stage boosters. In fact, 2 of the 3 boosters on this launch, flew previously. And 2 of the 3 boosters from the current launch came back a few minutes after the launch and landed softly in the proximity of the launch pad to be refurbished and reused for future launches. The rocket’s central booster was supposed to come back and land on a ship out at the sea but there was some hiccup in this landing. The second stage of the Falcon containing Musk’s Telsa car was shot into the space. It is circling the Sun between Earth and Mars. Likely to be there for the next few million years or so. Regardless, it was a major success for SpaceX.

Another major factor is that SpaceX has mostly used commercially available off the self-components to reduce costs. Rather than getting them custom built. There is an old story where NASA is reported to have spent a million dollars getting a ball point pen to work in space. Russians had a simpler solution. They used a pencil instead! SpaceX has lot of such cost saving ideas built in.

Of late, private space ventures have proved to be efficient-validating NASA’s mantra of faster, cheaper, and better. NASA itself is working on its Space Launch System (SLS) for a heavy launcher. SLS is using RS-25 engines developed in the space shuttle years. Granted they are updated with more thrust. It is designed to preserve existing space-industry jobs as much as it is to fly cargo into the orbit. Its maiden voyage is not expected until 2020. Do we really need NASA to be in the business of building launchers ? I don’t think so.

Should we depend only on SpaceX ? No, but there are other companies which are coming up to speed. Blue Origin from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is an example. Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket is another example. There are other countries doing the launches for lower costs. India’s PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) and GSLV (Geo Stationery Launch Vehicle) launchers cost less and are scaling up in terms of the weight of the payload.

Regardless, NASA is not the only game in the town. In fact, it is no longer the stronger competitor it once was. It should do what it does best. Doing Research and Development. Developing future road maps. And planning space missions. And let the nuts and bolts be done by the better suited private companies.

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