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

February 10, 2018 13 comments

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?