Falcon Heavy launch represents new era for rocket manufacturing

This week, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time ever, ushering in a new era in rocket manufacturing.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launches from Florida. Image courtesy of SpaceX.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launches from Florida. Image courtesy of SpaceX.

The rocket, which is the largest in the world in terms of payload, launched from Florida on Tuesday, lifting a red Tesla Roadster into an orbit which will take it into the asteroid belt.

While the payload itself was merely a whimsical joke or marketing stunt, and not all 3 cores were successfully recovered, the rocket itself proved functional.

Able to lift up to 63,800kg (140,700lb) to Low Earth Orbit, the Falcon Heavy is more than twice as capable as its nearest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy. SpaceX envisages that it will be used to launch heavy military satellites into space, as well as smaller payloads to the Moon and perhaps also Mars.

Despite it being the most capable rocket now in existence, this is not what makes it revolutionary or disruptive to the rocket manufacturing industry.

Instead, the core factor is its cost. Designed from the ground up to be reusable, all three first stage cores of the Falcon Heavy can be recovered and then relaunched.

Similar to its smaller cousin, the Falcon 9, this reuse can drastically drive down the costs to launch a payload into space.

At current prices, a launch on this rocket costs around $90m, while a launch on a Delta IV Heavy (manufactured by United Launch Alliance), costs approximately $400m, despite only being able to lift less than half as much payload. Effectively, that makes a Falcon Heavy launch an order of magnitude less expensive than its competition.

Moreover, the development costs of the Falcon Heavy were also considerably less than similar rockets being designed around the world. Estimated to have been built at a cost of $500m-$1bn, this expenditure is tiny when compared to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

With a development budget exceeding $10bn, and an estimated cost of $500m per launch, the SLS will be the costliest rocket ever built, however, will only be marginally more capable than SpaceX’s new rocket.

As such, SpaceX’s iterative development process, sharing of common components between its rockets and its focus on re-usability is highly disruptive to the industry.

Engineers in NASA, as well as SpaceX’s competitors like ULA, Arianespace and Roscosmos will have to rapidly integrate these techniques and designs into their new rockets should they wish to remain competitive and relevant.