Home > Critical Thinking, Current Affairs, Dystopia, Musings, Philosophy sans Sophistry, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism, Technology > The Falcon Heavy Launcher is a Publicity Stunt, Not a Paradigm Shift

The Falcon Heavy Launcher is a Publicity Stunt, Not a Paradigm Shift

Long-time readers of my blog might know that I am not a fan of Elon Musk and his frequent attempts to grab public money and attention by making outrageous promises. Some of you might remember that, a few months ago, I wrote a fairly critical piece on SpaceX. In it, I argued that the central ‘big promise’ of SpaceX- namely, that it can “disrupt” and completely upend the existing space launch business is a quintessentially american scam. You might also remember, in the same post, I also said that SpaceX as could make a decent profit if it was run like another normal business.

Implicit in the last statement was my educated guess that Elon Musk’s need for fame, money and ego would kickstart a series of decisions leading to the eventual ruin of the current boring but modestly profitable business of launching things (and perhaps) people into earth orbit. Till last week, my other guess about SpaceX demonstrating the ability to become a conventional and somewhat successful (but boring) company was on track. Now, it seems my guess about Elon Musk’s megalomaniac ambitions initiating a series of bad decisions is also coming true.

Some of you might think I am just hating on that guy because of the recent launch of their signature Falcon launcher in its ‘Heavy’ configuration. Readers might find it interesting that, in private twitter conversations, I gave it a better than 80% chance of success on its first try- which is a bit higher than SpaceX was willing to publicly admit. And why not? Falcon Heavy is an evolutionary development of a pretty well-tested launcher design, and while putting three multi-core stages next to each other can produce some peculiar mechanical issues, they have been successfully solved by others in the past.

And this brings me to my first criticism of Falcon Heavy and other recent attempts at building Super heavy-lift launch vehicles. As you can see in the graphic (below), lauchers which can put over 50 tons into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) have been developed since the 1960s. A number of such launch systems– from Saturn V, Space Shuttle Launch System and Energia— have flown on more than one occasion and have been quite successful at fulfilling the mission they were designed to perform. Yet, they all went out of production after the specific mission they were designed to accomplish was terminated. In other words, Super heavy-lift launch vehicles have (to date) been one-trick horses. But why?

Why have smaller space launcher families such as Soyuz, Proton, Titan, Delta 2, Long March 2 and Ariane 4 remained in service for decades, while much larger ones like Saturn V and Energia went out of production within a few years of their first flight? Some of you might think that it has something to do with technological complexity of larger systems, but larger launchers are not that much more demanding to operate that heavy to medium launchers such as those mentioned in the previous sentence. A better explanation for the longevity of heavy to medium launcher families comes down to the weight of payloads most frequently launched- unmanned artificial satellites, spacecraft carrying humans in LEO orbit and unmanned space-probes.

To make a long story short, the absolute majority of space launches do not need to put payloads above 30 tons in LEO, perhaps 10-12 tons in GTO and even less for Heliocentric or Hohmman transfer-type orbits. More relevantly, this apparent restriction on payload capacity has little to do with the cost or ability to launch them. Instead, it is largely a consequence of progressive miniaturization of electronic components used in unmanned spacecraft combined with the highly onerous weight requirements for manned exploration of anything beyond the moon using chemically powered rocket engines. Physical and chemical reality, you see, cannot be bargained with or ignored.

But it gets worse.. the bulk of commercial launch market that SpaceX wants to “disrupt” could care less about launchers more powerful than their current default Falcon 9 Full Thrust. Launchers of comparable capacity with a significantly longer service life, such as Ariane 5, have been launching two communication satellites on one launcher for many years. In other words, customers interested in putting large and heavy communication satellites seem to be in no hurry to develop ones that weigh over 6 tons. In fact, most operational communication satellites in GTO orbit are between 2.5-4.5 tons. Even the few super-secret government communication satellites for GTO orbit struggle to push past 10 tons.

Then there is the issue of lower than expected future demands for communication satellites because of the spread of global trans-oceanic fibre optic networks combined with relatively poor maximum data transfer rates at radio wave (lower) frequencies. Data intensive internet use by billions of people is better handled by massive terrestrial fiber-optic backbones than space-based radio frequency links. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the need for communication satellites is going to disappear in the near future. I am just saying that the initial explosive growth of communication satellites occurred due to proliferation of Cable TV channels and long-distance telephony in the 1980s to early 2000s period.

Let us now tackle the issue of manned exploration of celestial bodies beyond the moon. Ever wonder why NASA never did a man on mars after the conclusion of the Apollo lunar missions?

The simplest answer is that even their most optimistic designs for such a mission were (all modules combined) over 300 tons. In other words, even the most minimalist manned return mission to mars would require one or more rocket launchers to put 300 tons in low earth orbit. Then is the issue of the mission being about two years long with all its attendant physical and psychological risks. Short of developing a nuclear powered spacecraft which could cut the trip time to a few months, or even weeks, human space travel to any large celestial body more distant than the moon is really hard with chemical rockets.

And that brings to the unpleasant question about Falcon Heavy- Is it a ‘solution’ in search of a problem? Face it, there is currently no necessity or desire to develop orbital or space payloads of the size or weight where using Falcon Heavy to launch them would be competitive. Furthermore, decades of spending by governments and corporations has not created the need for payloads which could be only launched by super heavy lift launch vehicles. While its is easy to see a market for the services of Falcon 9 Full Thrust, the same cannot be said for Falcon Heavy. But if no customer is willing to spend money on utilizing its services, what is the incentive to keep on building and improving them.

In summary, I see the Falcon Heavy launcher as a publicity stunt rather than a ‘paradigm shift’ of any type in the space launcher business.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. P Ray
    February 11, 2018 at 4:03 am

    The physical and chemical reality as relates to rockets, has an analogue (haha, just spelt anal) in the processor world:

    New processors from AMD’s “Bristol Ridge” and Intel’s “Cannon Lake” and subsequent iterations, have no native compatibility with Windows 7 and under … meaning a cash grab to resurrect old software titles will happen soon, like Virtual Console from the NES.

    In this same way, future space launches will just be maintenance releases to replace aging hardware, since there are very real physical limits that chipmakers are bumping against. So unless there is a change of spectrum AND sufficient testing for thermal loads, expect so-called “better technology” to suffer outages due to overheating.

    Even so-called “gaming” laptops with their i7-7700HQs and discrete GTX 1060s … are effectively outgunned and very much overpriced against Intel’s i7-8809G … which is only available to very few system builders.

  2. (((They))) Live
    February 13, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    I don’t think you understand what SpaceX are doing, the Falcon Heavy is different to the other launchers in the article because for the most part its reuseable, we won’t see it used very many times to send 50+ tons to LEO, it will mainly be used for GTO satellites that are too heavy for the Falcon 9, for example the next two Falcon 9 launches will fly in the expendable configuration, in the future launches like this would most lightly use the Falcon Heavy, only fools would throw away millions of dollars worth of rockets with every launch

    The Falcon Heavy replacement is already being worked on, I look forward to future blog entries on why the BFR is a scam or just a publicity stunt

    And what type of payloads do they intended to launch with Falcon Heavy and BFR? Also who is going to pay for building and launching those payloads? BTW- Their BFR design is still only as powerful as a Saturn V from the late-1960s.

  3. bignixon
    February 14, 2018 at 4:11 am

    https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/263820-elon-musk-explains-falcon-heavy-center-core-crashed

    love how this part has been completely left out of the “official” narrative. so…at the end of the day, spacex failed at it’s MAIN goal and basically got tax dollar to re-engineer 60 year old tech. elon musk is a huckster.

    Well.. not unlike the issues with ramping up car production at Tesla.

  4. (((They))) Live
    February 14, 2018 at 4:48 am

    Falcon Heavy will launch large satellites to GTO that are too big for the Falcon 9, the US government may be the main customer, NASA or the DOD, SpaceX see a market for it otherwise why build it ? NO its clearly NOT a stunt

    The BFR will replace the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, it will launch the same payloads and also launch Musk’s coms satellites

    The BFR will use on orbit refueling so while its similar in size to the Saturn V it will be capable of Moon and Mars missions, it will sound crazy to some people but there is a market for the BFR

    Right now the only competitor for SpaceX to worry about is Blue Origin but they don’t reach orbit until 2020, expect failures along the way

    You so realize that even the most basic return missions to mars using chemical rockets will take over two years and require spacecraft with a minimum orbital mass (in LEO) of over 300 tons? And we are not even talking about the cost of such spacecraft/s and that sort of mission in general. What use is a cheap launcher if the manned mission costs 500 times the launch cost?

  5. MikeCA
    February 14, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    Of course launching the car as a payload was a publicity stunt.

    You may be right that today there is no demand for larger payloads, but it is possible this is because there is currently no way to launch larger payloads. If there is a way to commercially launch lager payloads, then customers may start building larger payloads.

    If that was the case, why did all the previous launchers that could launch 100+ tons to LEO go out of production?

  6. Shiningtime
    February 14, 2018 at 12:33 pm

    A human Mars mission is pointless and a waste of money. The moon is far better choice. Mars is too far and too hostile for humans. Any journey there at this point is likely a suicide mission.

    All talk of going to Mars are just pipe dreams. It is still unclear if humans can survive the arduous journey mentally. That’s just getting there. Living on the surface is a whole different beast.

    And what would a manned mission to that airless world without any valuable resources achieve which cannot be done for 1/100th of cost by unmanned landers and rovers?

  7. (((they))) Live
    February 14, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    If that was the case, why did all the previous launchers that could launch 100+ tons to LEO go out of production?

    Good question, why was Energia cancelled, I think it was because of economic problems in the Soviet Union, how is their economy going today ?

    Why was the Saturn V cancelled, well there was nothing wrong with the rocket, but foolish politicians thought the Space shuttle would work out cheaper and have a higher launch rate, they were clearly wrong

    Why was the Shuttle canned, well it was obvious to anyone with a brain the the Shuttle was a pork powered piece of shit that killed 14 people, it should have launched a couple of times and been scrapped, with a bit of luck thats what will happen the SLS

    BTW the Falcon 9 and Heavy are also set to be cancelled once the BFR is ready, could happen before 2025

  8. (((they))) Live
    February 14, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    And what would a manned mission to that airless world without any valuable resources achieve which cannot be done for 1/100th of cost by unmanned landers and rovers?

    Very good question, the Moon is so close I think its a place many people would love to visit, SpaceX already had two paying customers willing to pay for a flight around the Moon, if the BFR can put people on the Moon for less than $100million a ticket we can expect to see a Moon base very soon

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