Last week, SpaceX launched its new Falcon Heavy rocket and sent a Tesla Roadster on a billion year journey through space. With five million pounds of thrust and the ability to lift seventy tons of hardware to low Earth orbit, the Falcon Heavy is by far the most powerful rocket in the world. Because its boosters have the astonishing ability to land (all rockets before SpaceX were dropped forever into the ocean after launch), the cost per launch for both company and customer can remain low. Presently, it costs about $100 million to lift something into orbit using this heavy lift rocket.
The launch touches all of us in that it opens up endless possibility for humankind as a spacefaring species, but in the short term—especially if you work in defense or aerospace—it is fair to ask: how does this launch affect me? To understand that, it’s useful to look at the state of the American space program today, the goals of the Trump administration, and the hardware requirements of the U.S. military and intelligence community.
PENCE TO NASA: TO THE MOON!
When the Trump administration announced that it would reform the National Space Council, an advisory board within the executive branch abandoned 25 years ago, it was a sign that space policy might once again get real attention at the highest levels of government. And so far, that has proven true. The council, led by Vice President Pence, has directed NASA to return to the moon as quickly as possible—a stepping stone, the administration says, to the settlement of Mars.
For the agency to follow through, it’s going to need more money. Presently, NASA accounts for less than one-half of one-percent of the federal budget—its lowest point in 57 years. Meanwhile, it is responsible for keeping the International Space Station in orbit, its science program flying, and building the sort of heavy lift rocket that can actually carry into space the hardware necessary for a moon mission. That rocket—called the Space Launch System—is years behind schedule and billions over budget. Its basic design was dictated to the agency by Congress. (Essentially: build a big rocket using as much space shuttle hardware as you can.) If SLS launches in November 2019, it will cost one billion dollars per liftoff, or ten times more than a Falcon Heavy launch, for roughly the same payload on the outset.
If you are NASA and the president wants you to go to the moon but you can’t afford it, SLS must suddenly look like a perfect project for the ax. The rocket has powerful guardians in Congress, though, who do not want to lose jobs in their respective states. The chief contractors of SLS are Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. They also stand a lot to lose if the rocket is canceled. If you work for one of those companies, suddenly the Falcon Heavy looms a little larger in your life. Still, if cancellation were to happen, it would be a decade off. Why?
Per the directive from Congress, the SLS uses the RS-25—the Ferrari of rocket engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne, the engine’s manufacturer, happened to have sixteen of them sitting in a warehouse, most having been extracted from the decommissioned space shuttle fleet. Because NASA’s next rocket uses a cluster of four RS-25s per launch, this basically guarantees a minimum of four SLS launches. NASA, in other words, made the rocket essentially budget-proof. Once the first SLS is built and launched, the expensive engineering lessons thus far will have been learned, and the price for each rocket and launch thereafter will plummet. It will be a while before more such expensive rocket engines will need to be purchased.
Meanwhile, cislunar space—the “proving ground” between Earth and the moon—needs hardware: everything from habitats to command modules to lunar landers, bases, and power sources. This holds true especially if a moon base replaces the aging International Space Station, as the Trump administration’s recent budget proposal has suggested. So which companies have previous experience building hardware for the moon? Boeing, United Launch Alliance, and Aerojet Rocketdyne—to name only a few. Moreover, each of these companies has already developed robust concepts for the moon return.
As SpaceX makes space access affordable, companies that once might never been able to reach low-Earth orbit suddenly have new markets within reach, and once impossible plans have been made realistic if not manifest. As Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, told ClearanceJobs in an interview last month, when his company first went shopping for rockets to launch its new constellation of satellites, the next-lowest bid was on the order of $1.2 billion. SpaceX came in at $500 million. “By the way,” he added, “if we were doing this today, I wouldn’t be getting bids for $1.2 billion or $1.3 billion. The prices have declined dramatically across the industry as people try to stay competitive.”
Since then, low-Earth orbit has become the hottest spot in the solar system (figuratively). Planet Labs, Bigelow, NanoRacks, Blue Origin, to name only a few of the scores if not hundreds of ventures, have their eyes on Earth’s orbit. The intelligence community, perhaps more than any other body in the U.S., has a vested interest in new technologies that peer down onto the planet below. As the smallsat and cubesat concept matures, it’s easy to see the spy community shopping around for cheap space-based spy gear that’s nearly impossible to shoot down. If you are eligible for a security clearance, it’s time to start cultivating your aerospace and computer science credentials.
CARRYING HEAVY SPY HARDWARE
One day before the Falcon Heavy launch, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX (and owner of the Tesla Roadster now headed for a distant rendezvous with Mars), surprised many by announcing that the company would not attempt to get the Falcon Heavy human-rated. (NASA doesn’t send astronauts up on just any rocket.) In part, this reflects the state of the American space program today. Even if SpaceX spent years and fortunes achieving certification, the deep space and cislunar infrastructure simply isn’t ready to support astronauts for anything beyond a joyride.
Musk has instead stated that the next rocket from SpaceX, the BFR (“big,” ahem, “rocket”—really), will be the one his company uses to lift astronauts and future Mars colonists to deep space. The Falcon Heavy, then, will be used to lift the aforementioned infrastructure, but also—and this was notable from the launch and the real takeaway from the Tesla payload—the sorts of heavy satellites needed by the intelligence community.
You might have noticed that after launch, the second stage of the Falcon Heavy separated from the core booster and continued on. The engine of the second stage twice shutdown and reignited, and then over several hours coasted through the intense radiation belt surrounding the Earth and into deeper space. All of this was by design. The U.S. Air Force wants to be able to insert heavy satellites directly into certain geostationary orbits. Once the Falcon Heavy had proven its ability to do just that, the stage reignited and blasted the roadster to its billion-year destiny. Defense and intelligence now know they have a new tool at their disposal. If they weren’t hiring contractors to build heavy hardware before, they’re certainly going to do it now.
This is not the first time the U.S. has possessed heavy lift capability, of course. The most powerful rocket ever made was the Saturn V, which carried astronauts to the moon. But with the end of the Apollo program, that rocket was mothballed, never to launch again. The difference between the Falcon Heavy and the Saturn V is that the Falcon isn’t going anywhere. SpaceX is open for business, and that means business for everyone is about to be good.