Kudos to SpaceX again for Tuesday’s successful maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket. It was launched successfully about 2:45 p.m. Central time, followed by landings of the two side boosters back at Cape Canaveral and successful injection by the second stage of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s beloved red Tesla Roadster into solar orbit, one now reportedly extending beyond Mars. The center core booster apparently crashed into the sea near the recovery barge — the only flaw in the mission so far.
The significance of all this is profound. While this is but a test flight, America once again has heavy-lift capability into space — and this time around most of the hardware is reusable. Perhaps most importantly, the price tag is so much more affordable!
The space shuttle, marvelous though it was, could deliver a 15-metric ton module to the space station for roughly a billion bucks. That’s some $66.7 million per delivered metric ton or $30,200 per delivered pound. Flown expendably, SpaceX’s famous Falcon 9 could put about that same 15 tons at the space station for $62 million. That’s about $4.1 million per delivered metric ton or $1,875 per delivered pound. It’s not currently being used that way, but it could be. The Atlas V launcher has somewhat similar payload capability and price. I calculate about $2,500 per delivered pound with it.
This new Falcon Heavy rocket is listed as capable of delivering 63.8 metric tons into low Earth orbit, flown fully expendably, for $80 million. Going to the space station is a bit more demanding, so call it 45 metric tons to the space station. That’s $1.78 million per delivered metric ton or $806 per delivered pound. That’s about half the delivery price with the Falcon 9 and some 37 times cheaper than the space shuttle!
Falcon 9 is presently delivering Dragon cargo capsules to the space station that weigh in the neighborhood of 10 metric tons, with up to about 3 tons of that actually delivered cargo. Flown at the 10-ton capsule weight, the first stage is reusable. That can get a modest launch price break but, ignoring that, those 3 tons get delivered for $20.7 million per metric ton or $9,373 per pound. That’s still far less than a third of what shuttle deliveries cost — and you get to reuse the capsule, as already demonstrated.
Flown at about half-payload like Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy should be able to send about 29 tons to the space station, far larger than a fully loaded Dragon capsule, with first stage reusability. That should be near $2.76 million per delivered ton or $1,251 per delivered pound. That’s about 24 times less expensive than the space shuttle. If reusability confers a modest price break, it’s even cheaper. And this vehicle is already scheduled to fly again at least two more times this year.
The giant SLS rocket that NASA is developing is still a few years from flying. In initial form, it’s projected to be able to deliver 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit (maybe 47 tons to the space station) for something like half a billion dollars launch price, maybe more, but flying only once a year. At best that’s $10.6 million per delivered ton or about $4,824 per delivered pound. That’s an improvement over space shuttle costs but nowhere near as good as what Falcon Heavy will be able to do (or what Falcon 9 can already do delivering payload without a capsule) and nowhere near as frequently.
Reality check: Tuesday saw the maiden test flight of an experimental rocket. While successful, we need to see it fly several more times. But once done, we have a way to send men back to the moon for something nearer $1 billion instead of $30 billion as before. And we have a way to send men to Mars for something closer to $20 billion instead of over half a trillion dollars. This is the inexpensive heavy lifter by which we assemble our deep-space mission vehicles at the space station, then fly missions from there. Who knows? Perhaps one day in the near future someone launched into space through Mr. Musk’s efforts will finally catch up with Mr. Musk’s space-traveling car.