Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Falcon Heavy Impact on NewSpace

With the announcement from SpaceX yesterday about the Falcon Heavy, I went back over the recent missions I had been analyzing here at Space Business Blog to determine if any of them would benefit directly from the Falcon Heavy’s superior performance and reduced per pound launch cost.

The Answer: No. Well, mostly no.

Let me explain. Most of the innovative missions I had been considering were near term missions that could be performed on a single launch without the added capability of the Falcon Heavy.

  • CubeSat “Observers” of LEO/GEO assets – too small, mission may benefit from cheaper secondary payload prices
  • A NEO prospector mission – too small, mission may benefit from cheaper secondary payload prices
  • Nanosat Launchers – if anything, as launchers get larger, the need for a very small/responsive alternative grows, not decreases
  • LEO/GEO/L1 tug – a Falcon Heavy launch capability may actually harpoon this whole idea of a transfer tug (at least in the near term). Probably worth a new post on how the Falcon Heavy illuminates/reduces the value for such a capability
  • Refueling of Iridium’s constellation - too small, mission may benefit from cheaper secondary payload prices

But here are a few humble thoughts on why a Falcon Heavy changes the game:
  • Further NewSpace validation: Still a lot of doubt in congress that a commercial company can do rocket science – one more answer to these critics. New Space firms benefit from the validation that SpaceX creates.
  • Cheaper Secondary Payloads: With 53 metric tons to LEO available for each mission, smaller payloads could be combined to take advantage of all of that capability. This would allow more users to benefit from the $1000/lb price point, not just the big payloads.
  • Cheaper Falcon 1 and 9 missions: The Falcon family of launchers use the Merlin engine. Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and the Falcon Heavy (which could be called Falcon 27 since it uses 27 Merlins for each mission). In the announcement yesterday, Elon eluded to economies of scale coming from SpaceX making so many of these Merlin engines - 100’s per year. If the Falcon Heavy flies frequently, SpaceX will get even more experience about making many, many, many Merlin engines. The more Merlins you make, the more ways you find to make them cheaper. Yay economies of scale! The hope is that these savings result in lower prices for Falcon 1 and 9 over the long-term.
  • New mission potential: And now the obvious benefits – you can do more with any mission (more mass lifted at a lower cost). Think of the missions you can do with the raw ingredients being developed. Humans to NEOs, L1, Moon flybys, Venus/Mars flybys, and science missions to Mars and back – limited new hardware needed. The reality that a rich private citizen will soon be able to leave LEO for some impressive destinations has not been grasped by the population at large and will surprise many when such a mission is actually launched:
    • Falcon Heavy
    • Bigelow Modules
    • Dragon
    • CST-100
    • Even the Orion, and ISS
  • Commercial beats contracting: ULA could have built the rocket that SpaceX is building – they have a lot of very smart engineers. But they won’t build it (IMHO). They will wait for a contract to build one – which won’t come. Yes, they will spend their own small R&D budgets to enhance their current offerings. But they won’t spend hundreds of millions to develop a vehicle independently. And because of this, the only reason ULA will be offering launch services at all in ten years will be:
    • SpaceX can’t keep up with demand or
    • SpaceX has an accident or
    • The US govt insists on multiple launch providers to ensure access (funny they lacked that once ULA was formed) or
    • ULA’s political clout keeps them in the game – even if overpriced
    • ULA changes from a contractor to acting more like a commercial provider (the hardest switch to make)

Next Big Future offers this great cost comparison between the EELV launch costs of ULA and SpaceX:

Even if you DON'T have $80M+, the Falcon Heavy announcement changes how the whole world plans their space missions - even New Space.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article, have you considered writing a paper on the subject? I think it can be of strong interest to the audience of the International Journal of Space Technology Management and Innovation (IJSTMI)