This week, Space-X had a test launch of the Falcon Heavy, the largest rocket ever launched besides the Saturn-5. It was a great success, putting a Tesla Roadster into trans-Martian orbit. Space-X has taken a fantastic first step. If you have not seen the launch, you should definitely watch it – it is fantastic.
While the Falcon Heavy is very cool and a great achievement, it is also a good business investment. There are two reasons for this.
The first reason is that the Falcon Heavy is a good business decision is that the Falcon Heavy is simply three Falcon-9s strapped together. Other rocket companies have different lines for different weight classes. For example, Orbital/ATK has the Pegasus rocket, which last launched the eight CYGNSS satellites. The next mission that will use the Pegasus is ICON, which will launch later this year. That is about 1.5 years between launches. The Pegasus launches off of an airplane, which is super cool. The next size up from the Pegasus that Orbital makes is the Minotaur-C, which is capable of of carrying about four times as much mass to orbit as the Pegasus. The Minotaur-C uses some of the same components as the Pegasus, but they are pretty different. This means that Orbital needs to keep up two lines of production, which is quite difficult and costly.
The Falcon-9 uses 9 Merlin 1D engines in the first stage and 1 Merlin 1D (Vacuum) engine in the second stage. So, it uses essentially 10 of the same engines. The Falcon Heavy uses 3 Falcon-9 first stages for a total of 27 Merlin engines in the first stage, with a second stage that is identical to the Falcon-9 second stage, for a total of 28 Merlin engines. The engines and first stages can be used as Falcon-9s or Falcon Heavies. This makes the production costs much lower, since they don’t have to maintain different manufacturing lines for different rockets.
What would be super awesome is if they could have a rocket that used one Merlin engine (a Falcon-1 rocket, which used to exist) that could compete with the super small rockets, like the Pegasus or the Electron (as discussed in a previous post). But, Space-X made a choice that their smallest rocket would be the Falcon-9, which was a good decision, since the Falcon-1 could not really be expanded, like the Falcon-9 to the Falcon Heavy.
(Side Note: The Falcon Heavy is a relatively small rocket compared to the BFR that Space-X is planning for going to Mars. There are plans for more, extremely large, rockets. The BFR is going to be a fundamentally different design than the Falcon Heavy, which is somewhat sad, since I just wrote a bunch of words above about how awesome it is that Space-X are combining the same rockets to get bigger rockets. I have no real idea how much development has gone into the BFR yet. I will find out and get back to you!)
The other thing that Space-X has done is to make the Falcon-9s reusable. The fact that they can fly back down and land makes them very valuable. While the reusability of the rocket engines, and the number of times that they can be reused, is still questionable, it is quite certain that they will get there and the engines will be able to be used many times.
The other reusable space vehicle has been the Space Shuttle. The problem with the shuttle was that it was extremely costly to reuse it – about $500,000,000 to launch the shuttle. (I will write a post on this soon!) The Space-X rockets are fundamentally different things. They do not have a super complicated heat shield, or relatively complicated solid rocket boosters.
Interestingly, the primary reason that the Falcon-9 lands the way that it does, standing up using thrust, is that this is the way that it would have to land on Mars. Because Mars has such a weak atmosphere, it is very hard to land with parachutes or with wings, like the shuttle. Space-X therefore designed the Falcon-9 so that it could land vertically. Not that there will be any Falcon-9s on Mars, but the vertical landings are great tests of the technology so that when rockets do land on Mars, they will have undergone significant real-world tests. That is in addition to making the rockets reusable, which drives the price down significantly.
In summary, Space-X is making really good business decisions in its Falcon-9 and Falcon Heavy lines: using the same engines and the same structures is really smart, and making the rockets reusable is genius.