Friday, February 16, 2018

A Little Look at the Heavy Lift Landscape

The launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy 10 days ago created a lot buzz online with dozens of people posting their own video captures of the Tesla Roadster in space.  Even conservative commentator Bill Whittle's channel did a half hour Right Angle show through the launch, marveling "this really happened!"

This week, ARS Technica presents some numbers to think about in a piece called, "The Falcon Heavy is an absurdly low-cost heavy lift rocket".  They compare the costs of the Delta IV Heavy, NASA's Space Launch System, and the Falcon Heavy.

For the baseline, SpaceX prices the Falcon Heavy rocket, with reusable side boosters, at $90 million.  For a fully expendable variant of the rocket, which is required for payloads and orbits that are so challenging that the boosters can't be recovered, the price is $150 million.  That includes a calculated maximum of 64 tons to low-Earth orbit.  The Heavy has not been DOD-certified yet, but SpaceX says its rocket can handle all known Department of Defense reference missions.
Only the Delta IV Heavy rocket, manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, also has this capability today. It is more expensive, but how much more is a matter of some debate. On Twitter this week, the chief executive of the Colorado-based rocket company, Tory Bruno, said the Delta IV Heavy costs about $350 million per flight. This figure, however, is strikingly lower than what Bruno cited during a congressional hearing in 2015, when he asserted that, "A Delta IV, depending on the configuration, costs between $400 and $600 million dollars."

Moreover, the costs referenced above by Bruno exclude a "launch capability contract" worth about $1 billion annually, which the US government pays exclusively to United Launch Alliance. Based upon current law, this contract payment will phase out in 2019 (for Atlas rockets) and 2020 (for Delta rockets), which should increase the costs allocated to each mission. Finally, in 2019, United Launch Alliance will make the last flight of a Delta IV Medium rocket. Once this variant is retired, all of the Delta's fixed costs will fall on the Heavy variant. This will push the per-flight cost above $600 million, and perhaps considerably higher, in the early 2020s.  [Bold added - SiG]
Bottom line, according to ARS, the DOD may have to pay half a billion dollars more for a single launch of certain military satellites on the Delta IV Heavy versus the Falcon Heavy.  The Delta IV Heavy has a longer track record than the Falcon Heavy, eight successful missions.  With the kinds of missions the DOD launches, they might think the more expensive rocket is a better investment for their Billion dollar payloads.  One wonders how long that might last.

The wildcard is NASA's Space Launch System, which will out lift even the Falcon Heavy.  It is, however, still in development.  The SLS is an impressive system, and a family of boosters (pdf warning) the smaller one of which has more liftoff thrust and payload than a Saturn V. 
However, these improvements come at a very, very steep price. Consider just a single data point: NASA annually spends about $2.6 billion to develop the SLS rocket and ground launch systems for the massive rocket at Kennedy Space Center. The SLS rocket was originally supposed to launch in 2017, but now the maiden flight of the SLS booster has slipped to 2020. That is understandable; most large aerospace rockets experience delays. However, the cost of a three-year delay is $7.8 billion.

For the sake of argument, consider the costs of this three-year delay against the lift capability NASA could have bought by purchasing Falcon Heavy rockets from SpaceX in 2018, 2019, and 2020. That $7.8 billion equates to 86 launches of the reusable Falcon Heavy or 52 of the expendable version. This provides up to 3,000 tons of lift—the equivalent of eight International Space Stations or one heck of a Moon base. Obviously NASA does not need that many launches, but it could buy several Falcon Heavy rockets a year and have the funds to build meaningful payloads to launch on them. [Bold added - SiG]
ARS states that in practical terms, NASA has paid nothing for the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket. In fact, by leasing its unused Launch Complex-39A to SpaceX for Falcon launches, the space agency has said it saves about $1 million in annual maintenance costs on the historical launch complex.  The numbers leave a former NASA deputy administrator saying:
"The question is really, why would the government continue to spend billions of dollars a year of taxpayer money for a rocket that will be unnecessary and obsolete?" Lori Garver, a deputy administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013, told Ars. "If the US continues this travesty, it will siphon off even more funds NASA could otherwise use for science missions, transfer vehicles, or landers that actually get us somewhere."
Without a doubt, the successful test of the Falcon Heavy lobbed a metaphorical hand grenade into the launch business.  Even the Director General of the European Space Agency said they'd better start developing "disruptive ideas" to counter competitive pressure in the aerospace industry.  

There's no mention of the Blue Origin New Glenn booster, and no explanations, so while I know it's going to be big, perhaps they haven't released data to compare to the other vehicles.  


  1. Great piece.

    We should fire NASA.
    Andy Weir and Elon Musk have a better idea of what America should be doing in space than the NAS-holes do, and Musk is doing it for pennies on the dollar.
    A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about some real money.

    Lesson 10,000 on Why Monopolies Are Usually A Bad Idea.

    The people at NASA below the decision-making level with a clue will be going to top bidder in private industry, and the clueless administrative flunkies will have to go get jobs at HUD or the Dept. of Agriculture.

    1. Monopolies are always a bad idea. There are no exceptions. Not for armies, police, courts, roads, doctors, retirements, or rockets.

      Legislatures often grant monopolies at the exact moment the government service offering is revealed to be uncompetitive. For instance, it was legal to deliver letters in competition with the post office until about 1850, when Lysander Spooner beat them.

      I do not think the majority of humans will ever stop attempting communism. I do think communism will be ended soon by a cryptocurrency making tax theft cost more than it pays.

  2. Once again, P.T. Barnum triumphs. But at least Mr. Barnum had some ethics. Didja notice that Elon's roadster ain't goin' where it was supposed to go? Think that might make a difference to the DoD when they want to put a critical asset into orbit? And what is the success rate for Elon's toys at this point in time? How many launches, and how many loss of mission failures? I'll let you ignore their on-pad entertainment if you wish. For a reference, the Shuttle flew 135 missions and lost two. And is considered a "failure" for that.

    Elon Musk has less ethics than P. T. Barnum, but more money. And he owns the right people.

    1. I assume you have data?

      The only thing I've heard was that it supposed to go into "a heliocentric orbit that would take it as far out as Mars" and nothing about a specific mission. If the goal was to "turn the engine on and burn that mother out", that's different than hit point X at time T.

    2. Goal:


      Mr. Musk is a showman extraordinaire. He runs great cons without fear because he owns the right people. And he continually proves P. T. Barnum's saying.

    3. I don't see the contradiction. Fortune is the only source I've seen that said they planned to orbit around Mars. Everything I heard before the launch was it was going into a heliocentric orbit that would intersect Mars' orbit. It appears they made that.

  3. I have been very disappoint with NASA for the last 30 plus years. They still received a large budget but seemed to do very little that was useful. I do hope with new leadership that they turn this around.

    As for Mr Musk; it is my impression that in the past he acquired literally billions and billions from government subsidies to do far less than he claimed he was doing and for a dubious reason. His cars are overpriced, over hyped and under performing and very likely far more harmful to our environment than what they were designed to replace. Does that mean he can't or won't be successful and useful in this new venture? No but it would certainly make me want to watch him closely. I wish them both luck (NASA and Mr Mush). I want them to succeed. But I am concerned that most of all we see is more about budget and Billions than about what is good for the USA.

    1. I think you're mixing a couple of different things here. Is Musk a huckster? Of course. He's flamboyant and either naturally or by intention does things to attract attention. But that has nothing to do with the market's acceptance or rejection of his cars.

      "Over priced, over hyped and under performing" applies just as much to the Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius Prime or Chevy Volt. It all comes down to their horrific specific energy (in Watt*Hours/kg), as I've covered many times in these pages. I don't see the same number of people complaining about Nissan or Toyota taking government subsidies for those cars as I do complaints about Musk and Tesla.

      And for every person complaining about government subsidies for electric cars, you'll get some self-righteous greenie complaining about "government subsidies for oil".

      And that has absolutely nothing to do with the performance of SpaceX' launch vehicles, which is measured in every flight. Did SpaceX take advantage of research NASA had done? Of course, as has every other private rocket maker. That's what NASA was chartered to do: develop the technologies. It's why they exist. NASA produces (or used to) a glossy magazine of their technology spinoffs which celebrated when companies used technology they developed.

    2. A Chevy Cruse Eco costs less and does more than a Volt. The Cruise Eco uses some Volt-developed tech to save fuel, which is fine. I'd rather have a TBI Cavalier wagon from auction for $800.

      Electric cars scare the hell out of me when not safely inside another cage. They are deadly quiet, especially Tesla and Leaf. The drivers are arrogant and careless, especially when backing. The Prius has a backup beeper that is only audible INSIDE THE CAR. Make sure to stand upwind of a burning electric car: Lithium (and all metals) make very toxic smoke. Why do they burn? Who knows?

    3. you are disappointed in NASA because you mistaking believe its purpose is to do space exploration.
      President Obama told NASA administrator Charles Bolden that his highest priority should be "to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world

  4. All Musk did was create a successful heavy launch vehicle that outperforms NASA for a fraction of the cost, and land two booster rockets near-simultaneously, standing upright, on the pads for that purpose.

    NASA's experience with rocket boosters is a bit more...dodgy.
    And yes, only two Shuttle failures...scattering more astronauts across the skies than we lost in a decade-long race to the moon, from scratch.

    Are you going to believe NASA, the wizards of Canaveral?

    Or just listen to your own lying eyes?

    1. Saturn 5's never failed.Not once.Not ever.Saturn 1's never failed.Not once.Not ever.Titan 2 and Atlas man rated rockets had similar records.They never lost an astronaut.Gemini 6 did fail to launch the first try and have to be rescheduled,but it made for a better mission in the end.A mission with two manned vehicles in rendevous.It's all about who's running the show.True believers or bureaucrats.