SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launches its first satellite into a rapidly changing market
A lot has changed since SpaceX first unveiled its huge Falcon Heavy rocket in 2011.
The company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has laid out his plans to colonize Mars. Work has progressed on Starship, an even bigger, next-generation spaceship and rocket booster system. And satellite operators are shifting from massive, commercial satellites bound for a high, geostationary orbit to smaller, more capable devices that require less of a boost into space.
Does that mean the Falcon Heavy — which made its debut last year, launching Musk’s red Tesla Roadster toward Mars and landing its two side boosters simultaneously back on Earth — is out of a job?
While Starship will eventually take over SpaceX’s launch business, the company is preparing to launch a commercial satellite using the Falcon Heavy for the first time Wednesday. The rocket is needed to fly national security missions for the U.S. government, a vital revenue stream for SpaceX. And analysts say it could even see a boost in demand from the Trump administration’s call to return to the moon by 2024.
“Starship is in the pipeline, but the pipeline could be pretty long,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s space policy institute.
The Starship prototype has so far completed only two test hops in which the spaceship was tethered to the ground. “You’re not going to build an accelerated lunar architecture around that,” Logsdon said.
Falcon Heavy was designed to carry extremely heavy satellites and other large payloads into orbit. Compared with SpaceX’s single-stick Falcon 9 rocket, which can carry up to 50,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, the triple-booster Falcon Heavy can hoist a little less than 141,000 pounds, according to the company’s website.
But there’s a question about how much power satellite customers need. Many operators are waiting to see whether so-called constellations of smaller and cheaper satellites will soon supplant the large ones.
“The commercial [satellite] market is relatively flat,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at market research firm Teal Group. “I don’t think you’re going to see any dramatic increase any time soon.”
The Starship spaceship and Super Heavy launch system eventually replaced Falcon Heavy as the vehicle of choice for a private SpaceX passenger mission around the moon that was originally announced in 2017. That mission, which will carry Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, is scheduled for 2023.
Musk told reporters last year that the company decided to “focus our future developments” on the Mars rocket and spaceship, which is intended to be fully reusable, and that it did not seem necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for human spaceflight.
“If that ends up taking longer than expected, then we’ll return to the idea of sending a Crew Dragon [capsule] around the moon and potentially doing other things with crew on Falcon Heavy,” Musk said at the time, though he added that progress on Starship and Super Heavy seemed to be moving quickly enough.
SpaceX said Starship and Super Heavy could be flying cargo missions to Mars as early as 2022. But many analysts have said Musk’s timelines are overly optimistic.
In the meantime, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are certified to launch lucrative national security satellites for the U.S. military. And while other companies, such as Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman Corp., are looking to enter national security competitions, their rockets are largely still a few years away.
The Falcon Heavy “is mainly focused on U.S. military payloads,” Caceres said. “[Musk] needed that rocket sooner rather than later. Even if it has a lifespan of five to six years, that’s still very important to his overall mission plans.”
And because the Falcon Heavy rocket is derived from the Falcon 9 — the two side boosters from last year’s test flight were re-flown Falcon 9 first-stage rockets — customers might have more confidence in it than the Starship and Super Heavy.
“When you have hundreds of millions of dollars on the line,” you want to make sure you’re choosing the right launcher, said Phil Smith, space industry analyst at analytic consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology. He added, “frankly, the Starship is really a departure from the kinds of launch vehicles we’re used to seeing.”
Musk has said Starship and Super Heavy will be made of stainless steel so it will be lighter and not need as much heat shielding. And the system’s Raptor rocket engines will be powered by liquid oxygen and methane, which is a more unconventional fuel and different from the highly refined kerosene used by the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy’s Merlin engines.
Even SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has acknowledged potential future customer trepidation toward Starship, telling trade publication SpaceNews in 2017 that the company will fly Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets until customers are “comfortable moving over.”
Falcon Heavy’s future prospects might also get a bump from the Trump administration’s recently announced plan to return to the moon within the next five years.
NASA had intended to launch its Orion crew capsule to the moon and beyond on its Space Launch System rocket, which is being developed by Boeing Co. However, the SLS is over budget and behind schedule, leading Vice President Mike Pence to say during a National Space Council meeting last month that “if our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.”
He also opened the door for companies like SpaceX to take part in the moon mission, saying the administration was open to the idea of using commercial rockets to send U.S. astronauts to the moon.
Logsdon of George Washington University noted that Pence said President Trump had directed NASA and its administrator Jim Bridenstine to accomplish this goal “by any means necessary.”
“And one of those means is represented by Falcon Heavy,” Logsdon said. “I think the vice president’s announcement … changed the game rather dramatically.”
But with SpaceX developing both Starship and a constellation of thousands of small satellites that would beam broadband internet back to Earth, funding for the Falcon Heavy’s triple rocket cores is “a big question mark,” Caceres said.
“I think it’s entirely possible that [Musk] could be overstretched,” he said.
As a privately held firm, SpaceX does not file public financial statements. But earlier this year, the company laid off about 10% of its employees, including 577 at its Hawthorne headquarters. In a statement at the time, SpaceX said it needed to become a “leaner” company to succeed in its plans for Starship, Super Heavy and its satellite constellation — developments that “even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations.”
The Falcon Heavy launch of the Arabsat-6A satellite is set for 6:35 p.m. Eastern time from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After liftoff, SpaceX will attempt to land all three boosters — two on pads in a landing zone at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and one on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.