Friday, April 8, 2011

On the Falcon Heavy

The Falcon Heavy is a rocket under development by the American company SpaceX. SpaceX is a launch services company—they are not selling rockets but are rather providing transportation services to destinations in space. As such the typical customer will not be selecting a rocket from a catalog, but will be selecting performance characteristics to meet his space launch needs. SpaceX will retain control of all launch operations, so customer demand is likely to be driven by the cold, hard numbers: the payload mass and the cost to get it to space.

Artist's depiction of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle; image credit: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy uses a
cluster of 27 engines
With this customer mindset, the success of Falcon Heavy will depend solely on its performance capabilities. As far as payload mass, SpaceX has advertised that the rocket can loft 53,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. This is much greater than all currently operational rockets; even if Falcon Heavy was not cost effective in price per kilogram to orbit, it could attract customers based chiefly on its brute strength.

In the long run, though, the rockets that will become most common will simply be the most cost effective ones. Many future payloads—such as crew, fuel, and supplies—will not need to be launched on a single launch vehicle. If a smaller (or larger) rocket can deliver mass more efficiently than Falcon Heavy, then the former will prevail. Part of SpaceX's strategy to make this rocket cost effective, though, is to launch a dozen or so times per year—allowing the engine, which is also used on the smaller Falcon 9 rocket, to be mass-produced on an industrial scale.

Falcon Heavy's engine configuration has also been a source for skepticism. The challenge with using so many engines is igniting them at the same time and keeping them from failing during flight. Soviet engineers toiled without success to manage a cluster of 30 engines on their ill-fated moon rocket, the N1. I'm more confident that SpaceX can operate these engines, though, because they are properly testing testing them, and they plan to build tolerance for multiple engine failures into Falcon Heavy.


  1. Interesting article. The cost-effictiveness of the Falcon Heavy rocket is also dependent on the sheer number of launches per year. NASA and other buyers will not only look at how cost-effective and reliable a rocket is, but also that a launch system has got an organization behind itself that can provide launch capabilites that will allow more than four launches per year. NASA got a long list of projects in the future and the current economy of the U.S. points in the direction of more private companies providing servieces for the "public" NASA agencies. I am condient that SpaceX will be one of the best around. A contender might be Burt Rutan's Scaled Composties, but this private company specializes more in Space tourism than sheer heavy lifting as SpaceX can provide.

  2. Yea, the cost-effectiveness of any launch system will depend on the number of launches per year, but I don't think SpaceX will have a problem getting four or more launches each year if they can do them at the price they quoted. Scaled Composites might have a lot of business too, but as I understand this will be suborbital flights only.