China and Europe love SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket. Does NASA?

In awe at the size of this lad.
In awe at the size of this lad.
Image: SpaceX
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When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket debuted this month, China’s aerospace community was mostly envious, noting that their equivalent rocket, the Long March 9, would not be ready for another decade. One story in state media observed that “to put it more bluntly, this time the Americans showed us Chinese with pure power why they are still the strongest country in the world.”

The head of Europe’s space program watched the US company launch its enormous, largely reusable new rocket, and was also inspired.

“Totally new ideas are needed and Europe must now prove it still possesses that traditional strength to surpass itself and break out beyond existing borders,” wrote Jan Wörner, director general of the European Space Agency, on his official blog. He expressed dismay that rockets now being built by Europe’s space company, Arianespace, won’t be reusable, which puts them at a deep cost disadvantage to SpaceX. He called for a re-thinking of Europe’s rocket program.

This attitude didn’t last long. A few days later, Wörner wrote an apologetic sequel to his post, emphasizing that Arianespace’s current rocket plan was correct and would be completed as intended. He was merely exercising his prerogative as head of the continent’s space agency for “turning our minds to systems still far off in the future,” he said.

Reading between the lines, the abrupt about-face can be attributed to the stakeholders of contractors and government policymakers, who weren’t pleased with Wörner’s public fretting. This speaks to space exploration’s tendency to become industrial policy, more about jobs than science, which is a key reason why 1970s space visions of lunar bases and enormous space stations aren’t a reality.

If China and European officials are envious of the new American rocket, the US space program is decidedly more circumspect about its future.

Rocket rivals

While NASA praised the Falcon Heavy’s debut and its own critical role enabling SpaceX to develop the rocket, its acting administrator’s future plans for the rocket is simply “the integration of a new class of launch vehicle into our Nation’s space program.” Before the rocket flew, Scott Pace, the executive director of the National Space Council, said large rockets would always be “strategic national assets, like aircraft carriers,” not commercial services.

Discussions to fly a NASA test payload on the risky first flight never got past informal talks. Lori Garver, a former NASA executive who helped develop the public-private partnerships behind SpaceX’s success, wrote last week that NASA does—and should—see the new rocket as competition for its own projects.

Consider that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy was built to help realize Elon Musk’s dreams of a multi-planetary civilization. When deployed in its final form later this summer—perhaps in June, to launch some experimental hardware for the US Air Force and NASA—it is expected to be able to deliver some 70 tons to low-earth orbit, or less than 20 tons to Mars, while costing around $150 million per mission. According to Musk, the rocket cost somewhere north of $500 million to develop.

Then look at the Space Launch System (SLS) being built under NASA’s instruction by Boeing, also to explore the solar system. According to the new NASA budget released last week, it will fly for the first time in 2020, capable of carrying some 77 tons to low earth orbit at a cost of about $1 billion a flight. The total costs of the program are tough to estimate but exceed $10 billion; last year, NASA spent $2 billion on the rocket, and expects to spend a similar amount annually for the next five years.

SLS will be more powerful, but the Falcon Heavy is here now, and costs less. It’s the nature of disruptive companies to produce a less capable, much cheaper alternative to the status quo—which in this case is a blank space where a bigger rocket should be. Today, the Falcon Heavy should compete handily with largest rocket currently built in the US, the Delta IV produced by the Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance, which costs more than $350 million a launch.

National assets?

When the rocket launched a Tesla roadster into a solar orbit earlier this month, the “marketing wheeze,” in Wörner’s words, was the biggest event in the space world for years. While the stunt attracted both criticism and applause, it was a shot across the bows of the space establishment: If a private company can put a car up there, what else can they do? One Chinese state newspaper put the argument in terms that might be echoed at NASA’s Marshall Space Center: “what our country has to desperately catch up with is actually a private U.S. enterprise.”

Boeing spacecraft executive John Mulholland has argued that the Falcon Heavy is not big enough for Mars missions, and the space establishment’s skeptical line on the new rocket was perhaps best expressed in a back-handed compliment from German astronaut Alexander Gerst, currently training for a mission to the International Space Station. He told Ars Technica’s Eric Berger “let’s not confuse that with a ‘Journey to Mars,'” the term NASA adopted for its space ambitions under the Obama administration. (Musk appears to have come to the same conclusion, putting his hopes for multi-planetary civilization in his next rocket, the BFR.)

The Trump administration has determined that the US should re-orient itself toward lunar exploration, and its first step will be funding the development of a piece of space hardware called the “power and propulsion element,” which will be placed in orbit around the moon in 2022 as the cornerstone of a human outpost, possibly by a privately owned rocket like the Falcon Heavy. Meanwhile, this year China plans to land a robotic mission, Chang’e-4, on the far side of the moon—something no other space power has done.

It’s not clear what role the new Falcon Heavy will play in helping US space exploration in the near term; to be sure, it may take time for space project managers to work the long-delayed vehicle into their plans, if they are willing to do so. A meeting of the National Space Council on Feb. 21 —already fraught with jockeying between rival rocket-makers—may shed more light on NASA’s plans. The White House has asked for $100 million to fund public-private partnerships to send robotic explorers to the moon, and it is possible the Falcon Heavy will be a vehicle for some of these experiments.

But America’s “Journey to Mars” has been pushed into a nebulous future; the phrase doesn’t even appear in NASA’s new budget, because NASA can’t afford to go to Mars. At least, not with its current rocket.