WASHINGTON: No lives were on the line. It wasn’t lofting a billion dollar spy satellite. But the SpaceX Falcon Heavy test launch demonstrated today that the world’s largest rocket system worked largely as planned. And, as one observer noted, the entire system was built for commercial reasons alone; no government agency crafted a requirement saying we needed it. And that, not the superb engineering skills that led to today’s incredibly exciting launch, may be the most important fact of Elon Musk’s project.
In a thrilling scene straight out of a science fiction film, the two side boosters automatically landed back on Earth within sight of each other. The only blemish to today’s test flight may have occurred when the central core missed or fell off the drone ship positioned in the Atlantic to receive it.
“Even if they lost the third core. this is a big success for this mission,” noted Todd Harrison, a space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, as space experts everywhere know, a single launch does not a reliable launch system make. The general rule is that you need three near-flawless launches in a row to prove yourself. “You can’t extrapolate from one data point, but this is a very good data point. Even if it had gone boom, SpaceX has shown in their history that they would have just gone ahead and done it again and again til they got it right.”
But the bigger lesson for the Pentagon and Intelligence Community out of all this is that SpaceX built this system without much guidance from the military.
“None of that was driven by government requirements,” Harrison says. “They are doing this just because it makes good business sense for them in the future. If you have to wait for a government requirement then you are, by definition, behind the innovation curve.”
As Breaking D readers know, the Pentagon is desperate to power ahead on technology. (People in the Pentagon don’t talk about the Third Offset any more because that was an Obama idea and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis doesn’t like that it was called a strategy, which it isn’t really. But this is all about the Third Offset.) The old model, where brilliant government and industry scientists would say we should build this in this fashion and then the government would fund it, is just too slow to keep ahead of the curve. So, Harrison believes, the SpaceX approach, “may be the model of the future.”
So far, senior Pentagon officials have distinguished between smaller scale programs that can benefit from the commercial sector and those large, complex endeavors like, well, a launch system. Perhaps this will put paid to some of those arguments.
So what is the biggest market for the Falcon Heavy? It is likely to be the National Reconnaissance Office and Air Force, who are eager to come up with a much less expensive launch system than the very reliable and very dear Delta 4. For years, the assumption was that Falcon Heavy would be SpaceX’s biggest launch system, but Musk signaled yesterday that the BFR — Big Falcon Rocket is what they say it means — will be used to carry human space capsules into space instead of the heavy.
“One potential market SpaceX may be targeting for Falcon Heavy is the launch of large national security payloads,” my very smart colleague Jeff Foust writes at Space News. “The six-hour coast of the second stage after orbit insertion will simulate a mission to insert a payload directly into geostationary orbit, Musk said in a teleconference with reporters Feb. 5. Such trajectories are used for some Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) payloads.”
Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) hinted at that in our recent story about the latest EELV offering: “At present, ULA is the only launch provider certified for the SILENTBARKER and AFSPC-44 missions. However, it is anticipated that in the near future SpaceX will be launching the Falcon Heavy, which may be capable of meeting the SILENTBARKER and AFSPC-44 requirements.” So there are two missions in the nearish future which SpaceX might win if all goes well.
I’m old enough to remember the Saturn V launches as mankind reached for the Moon. As I watched today’s launch, I was shouting “go, you bastard, go” and was, frankly, just thrilled and proud — once again — to be an American.
Watch the video. It’s just cool!