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That's a big ass rocket
April 6, 2011 5:30 AM   Subscribe

$1,000 per pound to orbit is the holy grail for rocket pricing. Elon Musk claims that his SpaceX corporation's new Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 117,000 lbs. to low earth orbit for 1/3rd the cost of the next most capable launchers, the space shuttle and the Delta IV Heavy.

With the most capacity since the Saturn V last flew in 1973, Falcon Heavy has the potential to completely change the launch vehicle game. Of course, it needs to compete with the congressionally mandated Space Launch System (SLS) that is currently being pushed to replace the retiring shuttle.

There are arguments that congress is pushing NASA to develop SLS merely as a jobs/corporate welfare program for states and companies with NASA development centers, and others arguing that NASA needs to get out of the launch vehicle business and cooperate with entrepreneurs like Musk.

Assuming Musk's numbers are accurate and considering soaring launch vehicle costs, the Falcon Heavy may help make access to low earth orbit and beyond more achievable than ever before.
posted by tgrundke (39 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Um, so the Falcon 9 has flown TWICE! without issues. But this will need upgraded engines "currently being tested" and a cross-feed propellant system that is the first of its kind. I wish them luck, but "as soon as 2013" sounds more like hopeful marketing than anything. Still, this seems like the way to build a heavy lifter. NASA certainly hasn't gotten farther.
posted by rikschell at 5:43 AM on April 6, 2011


The Falcon Heavy looks like a great design, I'm really excited about it. Multiple redundant systems really are the way to go when failure is such an expensive event - the rocket has something like 27 motors, so it can survive multiple engine failure and still make it to orbit.

That being said, as long as NASA maintains the ISS (and has humans on board), they absolutely need to have their own launch vehicle. Otherwise, they're going to end up with the equivalent of UPS telling them "We'll be there between 2 pm Thursday and 6 pm the following Tuesday to deliver your oxygen and spare parts" and then showing up a week and half late.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:46 AM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Um, so the Falcon 9 has flown TWICE! without issues...

Eh, Apollo 8 was only the second flight of the Command/Service module and the third use of Saturn 5 rocket. Apollo 11 landed on the frigging moon in a craft that had only been tested twice, once in Earth orbit, the second in lunar orbit and of course no one had actually landed the thing anywhere or used it to take off from the moon.

Apollo 6, an unmanned test of the Saturn V stack, had numerous problems with its flight, but NASA figured they were problems they could fix, so the the next Saturn V rocket launched people to the moon. That was a helluva bold move.

The space suits they wore on the moon on Apollo 11? They had been tested in space for all of 38 minutes in low Earth orbit on Apollo 9. A longer test was planned, but the astronaut was sick, so they cut it short. Still, they deemed the suit good to go for walking on the moon.

NASA did a whole lot of risk taking to make its deadline for a moon landing and did well, so it's not necessarily a bad sign when a private company does it. Still, things will get really interesting (and perhaps not in a good way) when Falcon starts launching humans.

NASA certainly hasn't gotten farther.

NASA has Congress to contend with. That's half to 3/4 of the problem right there.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:01 AM on April 6, 2011 [13 favorites]


NASA has Congress to contend with. That's half to 3/4 of the problem right there.

BINGO!

A bunch of people who have no strong knowledge on a subject, or advanced degrees of study, hold all the purse strings and tell them where to walk and how far. That's a recipe for disaster
posted by zombieApoc at 6:05 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Apollo 8 was only the second flight of the Command/Service module

Minor correction, it was the second manned flight of the Command and Service Module. Apollo 4 and 6 had unmanned versions, so 8 was the 4th flight of the CMS.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:15 AM on April 6, 2011


of the CMS

Dammit, it's CSM. I'll stop typing for a few minutes now.

Here's the Wiki page for Falcon 9.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:20 AM on April 6, 2011


You know, it's pretty amazing that we're living in an age where the cost per pound of cargo going into orbit is actually being discussed.
posted by tommasz at 7:25 AM on April 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


A bunch of people who have no strong knowledge on a subject, or advanced degrees of study, hold all the purse strings and tell them where to walk and how far.

...nor have any incentive to see project succeed.
posted by goethean at 7:37 AM on April 6, 2011


Given the alarm yesterday about space junk endangering the ISS, though, it's pretty easy to see a downside for easier, cheaper orbital launches.
posted by COBRA! at 7:44 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Love how the "private sector" rocket uses good 'ol government facilities to launch, and the main thing they want is government dollars to pay for this beast.

Outsourcing is a total waste of funds.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:45 AM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know, it's pretty amazing that we're living in an age where the cost per pound of cargo going into orbit is actually being discussed.

I agree - the thing that did it for me was seeing the SpaceX video where they were advertising not only the new rocket motors & rockets they are offering, but also the new spaceship.

Not something you see every day .. at least, not in the past, but now that we're living in the future ...
posted by kcds at 7:45 AM on April 6, 2011


Oh, and regarding the post title? I'l just leave this here.
posted by kcds at 7:46 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


NASA has Congress to contend with. That's half to 3/4 of the problem right there.

BINGO!

A bunch of people who have no strong knowledge on a subject, or advanced degrees of study, hold all the purse strings and tell them where to walk and how far. That's a recipe for disaster


As opposed to say, handing it over to a bunch of capitalists. What could possibly go wrong?
posted by Ironmouth at 7:48 AM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Capitalists have a pretty good track record of getting shit done. Politicians not so much.
posted by fusinski at 7:53 AM on April 6, 2011


Ironmouth: Love how the "private sector" rocket uses good 'ol government facilities to launch, and the main thing they want is government dollars to pay for this beast.

Shame how the "private sector" haulage industry uses good 'ol government highways to run on, and the main thing they want is government dollars to maintain the road network.

Shame how the "private sector" aviation industry uses good 'ol government-built airports to fly from and air traffic control to guide 'em, and the main thing they want is a government tax break on the jet fuel ...

Rinse, spin, repeat. Transport is never profitable on its own terms, until you view the externalities as what you pay for the privilege of having a national infrastructure.
posted by cstross at 8:00 AM on April 6, 2011 [9 favorites]


...nor have any incentive to see project succeed.

Supposedly this is why Nixon wasn't much interested in going to Mars or other such projects. Wouldn't benefit him or his administration. And even if had wanted it, he still would have had to deal with a Congress somewhat hostile to spending money on manned spaceflight.

As opposed to say, handing it over to a bunch of capitalists. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot probably will go wrong in the private space industry. But a lot has gone wrong under NASA too (Apollo 1, Apollo 13, SkyLab, Challenger, Columbia). There's no guarantees either way.

To me, it makes perfect sense for NASA to try outsourcing some of the simpler things so it can focus on some big projects. We'll see how it goes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:06 AM on April 6, 2011


A bunch of people who have no strong knowledge on a subject, or advanced degrees of study, hold all the purse strings and tell them where to walk and how far.

Worked pretty well for the medical insurance industry.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:29 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll reiterate what everyone else has said about Congresscritters getting involved in decisions so far over their heads. NASA has been plagued by the necessary evil of congressional oversight and budget shortfalls. Essentially, NASA has been tasked with too much on far too limited a budget.

The tradeoff that NASA made with Shuttle was lower development costs but higher operational costs (among others). Considering the need to involve so many cost centers when NASA develops a major program, it makes sense to move the rocket building away from them and focus NASA on operations and exploration.

Again, assuming Musk can hit his targets, he's really thrown down the gauntlet to everyone, especially NASA's plan to build its own heavy lift booster. Experience tells us that the chance of NASA actually getting this SLS booster built anywhere before 2017 and anywhere close to $20 billion is next to zero.

Were I NASA at this point (and congress), I'd cancel the SLS program and take up USA (the shuttle operator/contractor) on their offer to fly out Endeavour and Atlantis twice a year for a fixed bid of $1.0 - $1.2 bil/year. I'd do this until Musk comes online with Falcon Heavy in 2014 (the realistic date). The $3.5 billion per year saved on shuttle ops combined with the $1 billion or so annually on SLS development costs can then be used for Obama's desired "advanced technology studies" (whatever that is supposed to mean) or to bolster NASA's flailing interplanetary probe programs whose budgets have been repeatedly raided over the years.

Of course, this all makes too much sense when you've got Lockheed, Boeing and ATK lobbying hard on the other side to keep the gravy train rolling plus half a dozen NASA centers from Alabama, Ohio, Mississippi and Louisiana who will potentially be out lots of cash.
posted by tgrundke at 9:52 AM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Capitalists have a pretty good track record of getting shit done. Politicians not so much.

Because you know, in space exploration, GE got to the moon and the government failed.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:06 AM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


$1000 per pound isn't the holy grail, it's just a decent first step. The base, can't-avoid-consuming-it cost of a rocket launch is the rocket fuel, which (at least for SpaceX's fuel choices) costs around $10 per pound of payload.

The first problem is that the cost of burning up all that fuel gets dwarfed by the cost of manufacturing and immediately throwing away every rocket you put it in. This is the dominant cost for SpaceX right now. Elon Musk claims "I will consider us to have failed" if he doesn't fix that, regardless of whether he's still beating all their competition otherwise. Their plan was to start with a first stage ocean recovery from a Falcon 9 launch late this year.

The second problem is that both fuel and manufacturing costs (in the past) have been exceeded by engineering and management costs. SpaceX has done a fantastic job so far of keeping development costs down, but their plans to amortize their operations costs are based on a sufficiently high flight rate - IIRC 4 flights per year for the Falcon Heavy and more than a dozen per year for the Falcon 9. I believe private satellites are less than half of the market right now, and even dramatically reduced costs won't change that quickly, so if NASA decides to (or, more likely, gets forced to) continue spending tens of billions of dollars trying to make launch vehicles rather than just billions of dollars buying them, SpaceX may be in long term trouble. They might still make a decent profit just undercutting their slower competitors for private launches, but without so much extra cash or near-term market prospects I doubt they'd continue such an impressive pace of development.
posted by roystgnr at 10:21 AM on April 6, 2011


Capitalists have a pretty good track record of getting shit done. Politicians not so much.

Because you know, in space exploration, GE got to the moon and the government failed.


Was GE trying?

Capitalists have a much better track record than government in getting things done when there is profit to be had, and where there are no inconvenient humanitarian concerns.

Space fits the latter category (aside from safety concerns, which will impact the bottom line and so should probably be dealt with about as well by privateers as by government) pretty well.

I'm still not quite so sure what the long-term profit motive is, however, aside from governments sending up research and military spacecraft, and some commercial satellites and tourists. Maybe that's enough to keep things going, I don't know.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:21 AM on April 6, 2011


$1,000 per pound to orbit is the holy grail for rocket pricing

Sigh. I've got a lot of weight to lose or a lot of money to make.
posted by Zed at 10:30 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Further ruminations by Charlie Stross.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:18 AM on April 6, 2011


The way SpaceX is pitching this seems a little iffy to me. They are boasting a lower dollars:pounds ratio not (entirely) by actually lowering costs, but by dramatically increasing the total amount of "sutff" they'll be hauling upstairs. While I'm quite sure they've done their homework, it strikes me as pretty surprising there'd be enough of a market for so much heavy lifting.

Also, their payload claims (which boast of LEO masses double that of the Space Shuttle's capacity) are simply choosing not to include the 80 ton Shuttle itself as part of the payload, which it most certainly is.

I do love the second link in the FPP, which includes a "best price guarantee" on launch purchases. Eagerly awaiting the addition of a "shopping cart" feature!
posted by ShutterBun at 12:00 PM on April 6, 2011


Were I NASA at this point (and congress), I'd cancel the SLS program and take up USA (the shuttle operator/contractor) on their offer to fly out Endeavour and Atlantis twice a year for a fixed bid of $1.0 - $1.2 bil/year.

Whenever we talk about what NASA should do, it's worth reminding ourselves that NASA does not make space policy. The Executive branch proposes the policy, congress reviews it passes authorization act that appropriates the funds to implement it. The appropriation act has a breakdown of how the money is to be spent. The 2010 Act requires immediate development of a heavy lift launch vehicle and continued support of a crew exploration vehicle to be capable of supporting missions beyond low earth orbit starting in 2016. It's a Federal law. NASA cannot ignore it, move funding from SLS to USA[1] or abandon SLS because Falcon Heavy[2] may be online in 2 or 3 years.

[1] I don't believe USA could continue to fly the shuttle. The shuttle was cancelled 7 years ago. NASA did lifetime buys of a lot of the parts and terminated the vendors. You'd have to pay a premium to get parts and/or get them recertified.

[2] Even if Falcon Heavy is a viable option in the timeframe SpaceX claim then NASA still needs a CEV.
posted by IanMorr at 12:23 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Outsourcing is a total waste of funds.

Should NASA also start mining their own metals? Would the federal government save money on IT equipment if they made their own computers from scratch? "Outsourcing is a total waste of funds." is one of the weirdest unqualified statements I've heard in a long time.
posted by ripley_ at 12:28 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Capitalists have a much better track record than government in getting things done when there is profit to be had, and where there are no inconvenient humanitarian concerns.

Space fits the latter category (aside from safety concerns, which will impact the bottom line and so should probably be dealt with about as well by privateers as by government) pretty well.


No, actually not. No space exploration has ever turned a profit. Sure there are commercial launchings, but the capitalists are totally piggybacking on science created to launch nukes to Vladivostok in 23 minutes.

The idea that capitalists have done anything worthwhile here as a "result of capitalism" is ludicrous. 99% of the technology was developed with our tax dollars. Now they want to sell our own technology back to us, launching it on tax-payer funded launch pads, using tax-payer launch and mission control facilities.

The idea that space is profitable is laughable. Sure it is, when you piggyback on taxpayers.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:40 PM on April 6, 2011


Outsourcing is a total waste of funds.

Should NASA also start mining their own metals? Would the federal government save money on IT equipment if they made their own computers from scratch? "Outsourcing is a total waste of funds." is one of the weirdest unqualified statements I've heard in a long time.


Again, 99% of this technology was already developed by NASA. With taxpayer dollars. Now this asshole wants us to pay him to sell it back to us, as we launch it on our pads, using our mission control resources.

This moron is not selling us metals. Nor have we ever mined our own metals.

But government contracting is a huge scam that has cost us billions.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:43 PM on April 6, 2011


Brandon Blatcher: Comparing Apollo 8 to the Falcon Heavy is like comparing Albert Einstein to Steven Hawking. The old NASA guys were so good, they had to bring them out of retirement to help get the new guys up to speed. They made space ships out of rubber bands and dreams! Not all these newfangled computer machines and such. And another thing, get off my lawn!
posted by banished at 1:06 PM on April 6, 2011


Ironmouth: Love how the "private sector" rocket uses good 'ol government facilities to launch, and the main thing they want is government dollars to pay for this beast.

Shame how the "private sector" haulage industry uses good 'ol government highways to run on, and the main thing they want is government dollars to maintain the road network.

Shame how the "private sector" aviation industry uses good 'ol government-built airports to fly from and air traffic control to guide 'em, and the main thing they want is a government tax break on the jet fuel ...

Rinse, spin, repeat. Transport is never profitable on its own terms, until you view the externalities as what you pay for the privilege of having a national infrastructure.


Your comparison is inapt. The government did not invent cars or trucks or even planes. But it sure as shit commissioned, invented and developed every thing about space travel.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2011


Your comparison is inapt. The government did not invent cars or trucks or even planes. But it sure as shit commissioned, invented and developed every thing about space travel.

No, it outsourced a lot, got various companies to build the crafts. For instance, Gruman built the lunar module, North American Aviation built the Command Module, etc. They were working under NASA's specs, yes but NASA itself didn't build the ships. For instance, NASA kept pushing Gruman to make the lunar module lighter, which result in it being paper thin in places. The windows bulged when it was pressurized, a dropped screwdriver punctured its hull, while it was being assembled on Earth, etc etc.

On the other hand, Flight Director Chris Kraft noted in his autobiography that North American seemed to have no problem spending money, throwing lavish parties, with hookers (which Kraft declined), when NASA administrators came out to visit. So there's that.

NASA has always used contractors, not sure how SpaceX is so very different.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:29 PM on April 6, 2011


as long as NASA maintains the ISS (and has humans on board), they absolutely need to have their own launch vehicle. Otherwise, they're going to end up with the equivalent of UPS

I know! If only there were some other partner in the venture, perhaps another superpower with its own launch capability, and a decades-long on-time launch record. I'm dreaming, I know.
posted by dhartung at 1:39 PM on April 6, 2011


Again, 99% of this technology was already developed by NASA. With taxpayer dollars. Now this asshole wants us to pay him to sell it back to us, as we launch it on our pads, using our mission control resources.

Err, I'm about as left wing as Marx, but I'm not quite sure what you're so upset about here. I'm sure much of the science and engineering knowledge SpaceX is built on was originally funded by the government, but so what? Did you want that knowledge locked in a vault somewhere? Or maybe government patents so we could have the Attorney General sue companies who violate NASA's limited-time monopoly on using foundational public-funded physics research?

NASA is a 5 dimensional nuclear fusion cluster fuck with all the inane, inconsistent meddling from Congress, the White House, the military, etc. Damn near every program winds up with cut funding, compromised goals and farmed out to as many congressional districts as possible regardless of efficiency

The bottom line of your more-socialist-than-thou stance is to snatch $1 billion dollars out of the hands of SpaceX so we can give $5 billion or so dollars to Boeing and Lockheed Martin and a bunch of other smaller private companies who would just love to keep churning out 1970s technology plus one additional bell *or* whistle per decade for as long as that gravy train keeps running
posted by crayz at 1:43 PM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


A known and long term ally as opposed to former enemy, now partner would probably be better. The US doing crew launches itself would be best of course.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:43 PM on April 6, 2011


Your comparison is inapt. The government did not invent cars or trucks or even planes. But it sure as shit commissioned, invented and developed every thing about space travel.

And the internet! Who does Google and Mozilla and all think they are, anyway? Join me citizens! Demand the government take back space travel and the internet from these money-grubbing corporations and put them back in the hands of our prudent, wise and public-minded legislators in Washington! Keep government technology for the government!
posted by crayz at 1:51 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know! If only there were some other partner in the venture, perhaps another superpower with its own launch capability, and a decades-long on-time launch record. I'm dreaming, I know.

I hear you, and frankly I'm amazed at the safety record of the Russian space program (well, over the last 2 decades at least). However, in my opinion there's the same problem inherent in using the Russians for moving freight and humans back and forth to the ISS - you're relying on someone else for your own safety. Maybe I'm paranoid in that regard, but it's not like the former Soviet states are the most politically stable region in the world, and Russia has its own financial woes to contend with.

It would cause uproar if something happened to US astronauts because, well, SpaceX didn't make it on time or Baikonur is unavailable due to political unrest or whatever else. There are precious few ways to get to ISS orbit right now, and the more options that are kept intact, the better, in my opinion.

And going in a totally different direction, I wanted to mention how cool I think it is that we live in a world where we can witness cultural impact on engineering design. I mean, look at the Space Shuttle and look at the Russian capsules and how different they are. Even better, look at Cold War-era aircraft from both sides - the Russian designs just look so alien to my Western eye. And yet they both fly and perform well! Totally amazing!
posted by backseatpilot at 5:55 PM on April 6, 2011


I hear you, and frankly I'm amazed at the safety record of the Russian space program (well, over the last 2 decades at least).

Well, they only flew one space shuttle mission....
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:27 PM on April 6, 2011


This moron is not selling us metals. Nor have we ever mined our own metals.

But government contracting is a huge scam that has cost us billions.


The point was that when NASA buys metal, they're outsourcing (or contracting out) the extraction and production of that metal. You're making statements that are far too broad.
posted by ripley_ at 8:47 PM on April 6, 2011


There are two kinds of government contracts:

1) Make a rocket and launch it for $1 billion in two years. We'll give you anthything you need, including world-class government-run labs and any equipment you could possibly desire. If things don't go right, we'll give you some more time and money to figure it out.

2) Make a rocket and launch it in two years. We'll give you a bit of startup money but nothing else up front. If it works, we'll give you $1 billion. If it doesn't work, screw it, we'll go with someone else. Oh, and if you're late or overbudget, it comes out of your pocket, not ours.

This whole business of commercial launches is all about NASA switching from the first kind of contract to the second.
posted by miyabo at 7:50 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


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