New Falcon Heavy Rocket Represents a Major Bet for SpaceX


New Falcon Heavy Rocket Represents a Major Bet for SpaceX – WSJ

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Widely acknowledged as an engineering marvel, new booster faces uncertain commercial demand

SpaceX
’s

long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket, slated for its maiden flight on Tuesday, faces uncertain commercial prospects and lacks a clear role in efforts to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon or deeper into the solar system.

The company conceived the rocket at the beginning of the decade, when SpaceX was an underdog fighting to increase its share of launches and needed a beefed-up alternative to a fleet of underpowered boosters. But after spending some $1 billion and grappling with five years of delays and huge technical challenges related to reliably harnessing power from 27 engines, the company is contending with significantly eroded commercial demand for such a potent heavy-lift booster.

The primary reason for the weakened demand is that both national security and corporate satellites continue to get smaller and lighter. So now, even if it performs as advertised, the Falcon Heavy might be

Elon Musk’s

biggest contrarian bet since he founded SpaceX over 15 years ago.

Since Mr. Musk announced the Falcon Heavy in 2011, his closely held company has become a dominant force, relying on a Falcon 9 rocket that is substantially more powerful than initial versions and able to fly more frequently than vehicles used by rivals.

The website for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the company’s formal name, lists four future Falcon Heavy launches carrying customer payloads, versus more than two dozen for its smaller predecessor, the workhorse Falcon 9. Less than two years ago, internal company documents projected a total of as many as 17 Falcon Heavy launches from 2017 to the end of 2019.

When it comes to prospective manned missions, the outlook also seems uncertain. Mr. Musk faces escalating competition—with formidable rivals ranging from

Boeing
Co.

to fellow billionaire and

Amazon.com
Inc.

founder

Jeff Bezos

—for a prominent role in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s proposed return of astronauts to the moon. Potential Falcon Heavy participation is murkier in longer-term NASA efforts to send humans farther into the solar system, largely because Mr. Musk already has unveiled plans for a substantially larger rocket, dubbed the Big Falcon Rocket, targeting eventual voyages to Mars.

Lunar payload

50 tons*

Falcon Heavy

First launch

scheduled for Tuesday

Payload

70 tons*

Falcon 9

First launched

June 2010

Payload

25 tons*

70 m

111 m

Falcon 1

First launched

September 2008

Payload

0.5 tons*

21.3 m

10 m†

3.7 m

12 m

1.7 m

Saturn V

Used in NASA’s Apollo program and to launch the Skylab space station

First launched

1967

Orbital payload

130 tons*

Lunar payload

50 tons*

Falcon Heavy

First launch

scheduled for Tuesday

Payload

70 tons*

Falcon 9

First launched

June 2010

Payload

25 tons*

70 m

111 m

Falcon 1

First launched

September 2008

Payload

0.5 tons*

21.3 m

1.7 m

12 m

3.7 m

10 m†

Saturn V

Used in NASA’s Apollo program and to launch the Skylab space station

First launched

1967

Orbital payload

130 tons*

Lunar payload

50 tons*

Falcon Heavy

First launch

scheduled for Tuesday

Payload

70 tons*

Falcon 9

First launched

June 2010

Payload

25 tons*

70 m

111 m

Falcon 1

First launched

September 2008

Payload

0.5 tons*

21.3 m

12 m

1.7 m

3.7 m

10 m†

4

2

3

1

1.7 m

3.7 m

12 m

10 m†

1) Falcon 1

Payload

First launched

0.5 tons*

September 2008

2) Falcon 9

Payload

First launched

25 tons*

June 2010

3) Falcon Heavy

First launch

scheduled for Tuesday

Payload

70 tons*

4) Saturn V

First launched

Used in NASA’s Apollo program and to launch the Skylab space station

1967

Orbital payload

130 tons*

Lunar payload

50 tons*

Separately, NASA is pursuing its own multibillion-dollar Mars rocket. It is unknown how, or even if, Mr. Musk’s privately financed vehicles might mesh with those plans.

Given the high personal and corporate stakes riding on Tuesday’s test flight, Mr. Musk hopes to demonstrate convincingly to naysayers as well as future customers that his team achieved something never done before: Using private funding, it developed and successfully launched a rocket featuring 5 million pounds of thrust, the most power since the Apollo era’s Saturn V.

If all goes well, the 230-foot behemoth is scheduled to lift off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday afternoon local time, carrying a red Tesla roadster as a mock payload. Renowned for his public-relations flair, Mr. Musk, who also runs car maker

Tesla Motors
Inc.,

has quipped on

Twitter

that the car will remain “in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.”

The first three minutes will be the most stressful for the rocket—and for SpaceX officials. By then, two side boosters are supposed to separate and push away from the rocket’s main body, something that can’t be fully simulated on the ground. The side boosters and rocket core are intended to return and land vertically, in keeping with SpaceX’s focus on repeat uses for hardware..

The launch illustrates a trend in the rocket business toward “a lot of private investment without clarity about what the market will look like,” according to

James Maser,

a former industry executive who is now president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It’s not obvious what the return on investment will be,” he said.

Yet the sheer engineering audacity, once scoffed at by many of Mr. Musk’s critics, is impressive to many in the industry. Since U.S. astronauts landed on the moon in the late 1960s, scientists have pondered the advantages of such a large, reusable rocket, said

Howard McCurdy,

a space historian who teaches public policy at American University. “It’s something we’ve dreamed about for half a century.”

Mr. Musk’s latest rocket, advertised at under $100 million per mission, boasts roughly twice the lift capacity and one-fourth the cost of its closest heavy-lift competitor. “A launch vehicle in the price range of the Falcon Heavy could make a lunar base economically feasible,” Mr. McCurdy said. “That is huge.”

NASA’s own deep-space rocket, called Space Launch System and expected to cost $1 billion per mission, isn’t set to fly until the end of next year at the earliest. An operational Falcon Heavy is bound to stoke debate over whether SpaceX can implement plans to reach Mars that will turn out to be faster and cheaper than those being developed by the agency or its international partners.

Excitement over the coming launch has prompted throngs of space geeks and space aficionados to snap up tickets for the best viewing spots. The number of media outlets expected to cover the event dwarfs those typically on hand for SpaceX blastoffs.

But space experts aren’t actually rooting for a flawless mission. Instead, they said the optimum scenario is for the engines and navigation systems to basically work as designed, but for some small glitches to surface. That would allow engineers to identify and fix incipient problems before they spread and result in serious or possibly catastrophic failures during later flights.

In addition to structural stresses, company engineers will be closely monitoring tricky coordination between engines that requires the central cluster to increase thrust once the side boosters are released. The flight also will answer questions about how those boosters maneuver during their return without the usual nose cones.

All preparations were on track Sunday with a favorable weather forecast, though there is a slight chance winds and clouds could interfere with the launch. But considering the overall complexity of the rocket and possible hiccups stemming from a recently updated launchpad, a number of space experts said they wouldn’t be surprised to see a postponement.

As SpaceX’s chief executive and top designer, Mr. Musk has consistently tried to damp expectations. He has said that “at first it sounded easy” to link three Falcon 9’s together, but it ended up being “shockingly difficult” and “crazy hard” because of extra structural stresses and the challenge of getting all the engines to work precisely together.

The worst-case scenario would be if a malfunctioning rocket damages the launch facility. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage,” Mr. Musk said at a conference last summer. “I would consider even that a win.”

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com




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