SpaceX’s successful static firing of its Falcon Heavy rocket Wednesday in preparation for the rocket’s expected maiden flight next month is important for the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. Why?
It could lead to big savings.
Today, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has a tight grip on government contracts for the largest military payloads. ULA’s Delta IV rocket is the only certified provider for those missions, often used to lift classified satellites.
Although the Air Force certified the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch military satellites in May 2015, it has not yet certified the larger Falcon Heavy rocket needed for the larger payloads.
A successful Falcon Heavy launch — and subsequent certification from the Air Force —would change the landscape of the industry, and require the Air Force and intelligence agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office to reevaluate their acquisition plans.
According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy combines three Falcon 9 engine cores, a total of 27 Merlin engines, to generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust. Standing at 70 meters tall, the company says its rocket’s reusable boosters can deliver payloads up to 64,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, and smaller payloads as far as Mars.
By comparison, ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket maxes out at payloads weighing 28,370 kilograms.
Total launch costs are tricky to navigate and difficult to accurately pin down, but according to an August 2017 Government Accountability Office report, the cost of a Delta IV launch ranges between $164 and $400 million. Other reporting has shown that the Air Force has paid upwards of $435 million per launch. Compared to the GAO’s estimated $90 to $270 million cost per launch of the Falcon Heavy, it’s easy to see why national security officials believe the introduction of the new rocket will further competition in the launch industry and drive down costs for the most expensive government missions.
The success of the Falcon Heavy next month, however, is far from guaranteed. SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk has acknowledged that the rocket could very well explode after liftoff.
The risk of fireworks has not dissuaded Musk from taking a more personal investment in the launch; the rocket’s payload will be his personal cherry-red Tesla Roadster. “I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly. I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest,” Musk told CBS News.
Daniel Cebul is an editorial fellow and general assignments writer for Defense News, C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain and Federal Times.