The Starman sitting inside a Tesla Roadster is currently floating around in space. Elon Musk and his space rocket company, SpaceX, launched it into orbit February 6th, courtesy of their Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy successfully lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is the most powerful operational rocket in operation, with the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons—heavier than a 737-jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel.
For SpaceX, this recent spectacle of space technology is a win. It became breaking news and received a ton of media attention. So, the question I have as an engineer is, now what?
SpaceX and the Cost of Making Rockets
In 2017, SpaceX successfully reused its Falcon 9 rockets. The initial flight was in April 2016; almost one year later, the company sent its second payload into space reusing the same rocket. It has taken SpaceX 15 years to achieve this goal. According to the firm, by reusing its liftoff boosters instead of discarding them and creating new ones for each space mission, it can reduce the costs by 30%.
According to Dan Dumbacher, former NASA deputy associated administrator for exploration systems development, the original space shuttle main engines were reusable. “We tried to make them reusable for 55 flights,” said Dumbacher. “Look how long and how much money it took for us to do that, and we still weren’t completely successful for all the parts.” The problem was the refurbishing of the rockets and the shuttle once it returned to Earth. All but the external tank was able to be used again post-launch, but unfortunately NASA could never figure out how to bring the rockets to a reusable status.
The Shuttle’s main engines had to be replaced after a few launches, and the solid rocket boosters required constant updates once they had been recovered from the ocean. The vehicle had to undergo several inspections and repairs between missions. Additionally, the external tank had to be built anew for each flight. This drove up the cost of each Shuttle mission within the cost range of $450 million and $1.5 billion per launch.
According to its manufacturer, the United Launch Alliance, the Falcon Heavy cheaper than other rockets currently on the market. Each flight of the rocket starts $90 million, and the next closest powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, averages $350 million per launch.
The SpaceX rockets have fared much better than the Shuttles. Falcon Heavy’s first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than five million pounds of thrust at liftoff—equal to approximately 18 747 aircraft. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit. According to its manufacturer, the United Launch Alliance, the Falcon Heavy cheaper than other rockets currently on the market. Each flight of the rocket starts at $90 million and the next closest powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, averages $350 million per launch.
The Falcon 9 rockets are not as complicated, but do experience some of the same conditions as the Shuttles. The Falcon 9 first stage can experience temperature changes from 250 to 1,000°F during its return through the atmosphere. As the first stage reaches a maximum speed somewhere between Mach 5.5 and 7.5, it experiences heavy pressures and forces from the gases in the atmosphere, resulting in atmospheric loads of up to hundreds of pounds.
SpaceX already launched 18 successful missions with the Falcon 9 rockets in 2017. The majority of these launches were satellite deployments and cargo for the International Space Station. The company has 12 scheduled launches for 2018.
What keeps the price down is the reusability of the Falcon 9 rockets. For example, they will reuse the main body of the rocket and the cross-hatched pieces at the top of each rocket (known as the grid fins) to ground it safely. The grid fins are expensive being made of titanium and are reusing them helps keep the cost down. The Falcon Heavy’s center core uses the same engines as a Falcon 9 booster, but the rocket’s airframe must be upgraded for each flight.
Musk has said that a “fully expendable” Falcon Heavy would cost only $150 million per launch, which is $250 million cheaper than the competition. A fully expendable rocket tries not to conserve fuel or weight to recover parts. The potential savings for the owner of a Falcon Heavy rocket could be lower with the reusability of the Falcon 9 rockets.
The Future of SpaceX
SpaceX is also designing the Dragon spacecraft and will be tested on Falcon rockets by the end of this year. The final version of the Falcon 9, the “Block 5”, will have almost triple the lift strength of the original version. It will also be used on astronaut missions with the Dragon spacecraft.
SpaceX, proving that its rockets are powerful enough for beyond Earth orbit, now have options on how to grow. NASA’s current objective is to return to the moon, and its Space Launch System rockets (when completed) will be more powerful than the Falcon Heavy rockets. However, their completion is years away and will not be able to carry astronauts until 2022. The cost is also estimated to be 10 times as much as the Falcon Heavy.
SpaceX launched 18 successful missions with the Falcon 9 rockets in 2017 alone. The majority of these launches were satellite deployments and cargo for the International Space Station. The company has 12 scheduled launches for 2018. SpaceX will be looking into upgrading the Falcon Heavy. The central core did not successfully return after launch. The rocket needed three of the nine engines to ignite to land safety and only one lit up. The next Falcon Heavy will see brand-new Falcon 9 rockets with updated features and a brand-new core.
SpaceX is also designing the Dragon spacecraft and will be tested on Falcon rockets by the end of this year. The final version of the Falcon 9, the “Block 5,” will have almost triple the lift strength of the original version. It will also be used on astronaut missions with the Dragon spacecraft and, according to Musk, should expect the first Block 5 flight shortly.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office claimed SpaceX won’t be certified to fly NASA astronauts until late 2019 at the earliest due to safety concerns. However, this demonstrates that the future of SpaceX is more than launching Teslas into space: it’s also about putting astronauts on the moon, Mars, and beyond.