SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blew minds Tuesday with its more than 5 million pounds of thrust, two booster landings and successful delivery of CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla sports car on a path into deep space.
"It can do anything you want,” Musk said of the potential for the world’s new most powerful rocket, but at the same time, seemed to downplay his plans for it. He is already working on a bigger rocket to fly humans to Mars.
The question is, who wants to use the Falcon Heavy, and what does its arrival really mean for the space industry?
The Pentagon, some companies and NASA scientists will welcome the rocket’s bargain basement $90 million price for occasional launches of very heavy satellites, or perhaps huge batches of small satellites.
Fans of SpaceX and a more entrepreneurial approach to spaceflight see the Falcon Heavy as an opportunity to jump-start deep space exploration, and proof NASA should get out of the business of designing and flying its own rockets.
NASA regards the rocket as a complement to — not a replacement for — the much more powerful, expensive and so far unseen Space Launch System rocket that the agency is developing, with hopes to launch a crew around the moon by 2022.
“The issue is whether there are customers and a market for this launch vehicle, and what are the implications for it?” said Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space. “I actually think the implications are really big.”
Miller led a 2015 study that concluded astronauts could return to the surface of the moon within five to seven years using the Falcon Heavy. Entire missions would cost about $1 billion — the minimum price of just the launch of NASA's proposed SLS rocket.
“This launch vehicle and the ones that will follow it that are commercially designed, owned and operated are the only way that NASA’s going to get back to the moon in any affordable and sustainable manner,” said Miller. “This is the future of NASA.”
Bob Walker, a lobbyist and former congressman who advised the Trump campaign on space policy, called the Falcon Heavy a “major breakthrough” and “revolution” that makes deep space missions cost-effective.
“We need to figure out now where it fits into overall picture on space front,” he said. “I regard this as a very, very significant step forward for the United States space program.”
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence congratulated SpaceX after Tuesday’s demonstration launch of Musk’s Tesla Roadster and its mannequin driver, Starman. Photos of the drop top red car and the space-suited dummy, one hand on the steering wheel, with the earth hanging in the background, ignited the public imagination.
Trump has expressed impatience with the slow pace of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” program, and directed the space agency to return astronauts to the moon — so far without promising more funding. A budget proposal to be unveiled Monday may reveal more details.
The Falcon Heavy could be tapped to launch robotic precursor missions or lunar supplies, just as SpaceX now helps supply the International Space Station.
“I think it’s important,” Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said before the Falcon Heavy launch. “We haven’t worked out yet what role the commercial partners will play, but we have decided that there will be commercial partnerships when we go back to the moon.”
To some within NASA the Falcon Heavy, which Musk announced he would build in 2011, has long been feared as competition and an “SLS killer.”
Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator during the Obama administration, said the government must choose whether it wants a bold exploration program or simply a jobs program supporting the aerospace establishment.
"The question to be answered in Washington now is why would Congress continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars a year on a government-made rocket that is unnecessary and obsolete now that the private sector has shown they can do it for a fraction of the cost?" Garver wrote Thursday in The Hill.
For now, congressional support for NASA’s big rocket remains strong.
“Unless there is a wholesale change in the political dynamics up on the Hill, I don’t see that SLS is threatened at this time,” said Marcia Smith, editor of Space Policy Online.
Amid the long-running debates about how best to get people to the moon or Mars, SpaceX has yet to launch an astronaut. It is behind schedule in efforts to fly crews to the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, as is Boeing, the program's other partner.
Photos: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch from KSC and booster landings
NASA had hoped one of those companies would fly to the ISS last year, but it probably won’t happen before next year and maybe later, according to government auditors.
“Mannequins don’t count,” said Smith. “What people should really be focusing on now is not this breathtaking launch, but whether or not (Musk is) able to meet his contractual commitments to safely put people into low Earth orbit.”
While touting the Falcon Heavy's nearly unlimited potential, Musk also surprised many just before the big rocket's debut by saying he no longer intended to launch people on it.
A year after announcing plans to fly a pair of private citizens around the moon, he now says he doesn't want to invest the time and money necessary to human-rate the rocket. Instead, he wants SpaceX to focus on a giant Mars rocket and spaceship the company calls the "BFR," or Big Falcon Rocket, whose development he said is moving faster than expected.
The nearly 350-foot BFR, with a booster powered by 31 engines, might be ready to fly to orbit within three or four years, Musk said, exhibiting his usual optimism.
For now, SpaceX has three Falcon Heavy missions under contract: two for commercial satellite operators and one for an Air Force test program.
The rocket’s only U.S. competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, has launched only nine times since 2004, with seven more flights planned through 2023. It costs three to four times as much the Falcon Heavy and could be put out of business.
“If we’re successful in this, it is game over for all other heavy-lift rockets,” said Musk.
What makes the Falcon Heavy so much cheaper? Its first stage consists of three Falcon 9 rockets that SpaceX now launches and lands routinely, lowering production costs.
Musk likened the innovation of reusable rockets to the difference between planes that fly over and over competing against single-use aircraft that ask passengers to parachute to their destinations, then crash.
“Crazy as that sounds, that’s how the rocket business works,” he said. “So bizarre.”
Musk and his supporters expect the heavy-lifter to attract customers eager to take advantage of its new capability and price point.
“Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload,” said Musk. “It can launch more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world. So it’s kind of up to customers what they might want to launch.”
Photos: Huge crowds for SpaceX launch pack Titusville
They might want to launch giant satellites, he said, or send a science probe on an express trip to Pluto. Two or three Falcon Heavy launches, he said, could send astronauts back to the moon like the Apollo program’s Saturn V.
"But I wouldn’t recommend it, because I think the new BFR architecture is the way to go," he said.
SpaceX spent at least a half-billion to develop the Falcon Heavy, Musk estimated. It did so with no government mandate to build the rocket, though NASA launch contracts have been crucial to the company’s overall success to date.
Even if the rocket ends up flying infrequently, its arrival made a powerful statement about what private industry with billionaire backing can achieve.
“Elon did this on his own dime, his own company’s resources, because he thought it was a good business thing to do,” said Bruce Pittman, a senior vice president of the National Space Society. “That will be one of the enduring landmarks, that the private sector is ready, wiling and seems to be able step up to these kinds of challenges, which I don’t think 10 or 15 years ago was true.”
Within a few years, Musk can expect to face competition from the Glenn rocket being developed by Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.
If customer demand for the Falcon Heavy remains to be seen, the crowds packing Brevard County, Florida, beaches and roads Tuesday again proved the public's desire for an inspiring and innovative space program.
“The excitement surrounding the flight suggests that there is a hunger for exploration, for doing some exciting things in space,” said space historian John Logsdon.
Logsdon traveled to Kennedy Space Center for the rocket’s first launch. He surmised that the estimated 100,000 others who flocked to the Space Coast weren’t moved by the rocket’s ability to lift bigger communications satellites.
“Pragmatically, it’s going to have to create its own market if it’s going to be sustained,” said Logsdon. "The symbolism is that it’s a vehicle that can carry heavy weight beyond Earth orbit, and almost titillates us into thinking we’re ready to explore again, that human flights beyond Earth orbit could come sooner rather than later.”