Science

SpaceX's 'Falcon' feat may be just a prelude to the main event

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According to SpaceX, the BFR will generate 11.8 million pounds of thrust and be able to carry a 150-ton payload. That far surpasses any rocket now in production, outstripping even the promised capabilities of NASA’s enormous Space Launch System, or SLS. (The names of the two rockets speak volumes about the difference between the cultures of NASA and SpaceX.)

Even more important than BFR’s size will be its cost. SpaceX says the Falcon Heavy will cost about $90 million per launch but aims to make BFR cheaper than that — possibly a lot cheaper — because it will be 100-percent reusable.

In contrast, NASA’s SLS will cost a whopping $1 billion per launch, according to former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.

A race to the bottom on cost

The staggering expense of the SLS is a key reason why NASA’s long-discussed plans to send astronauts back to the moon and to Mars have remained theoretical exercises. SpaceX’s success with the Falcon Heavy could free NASA from the SLS in favor of vastly more affordable private rockets.

“Government development of SLS was demanded by Congress,” Garver says. “If SpaceX successfully develops BFR, there is no role for SLS. This launch is a game-changer that can save NASA from themselves.”

Dramatic drops in launch cost will have repercussions far beyond NASA, especially if the BFR performs as promised. At the press conference, Musk vowed that “we want a new space race,” a global competition to see who can provide the most capability for the least money.

In reality, that race is well underway.

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“Russia and China cannot afford to match Elon on costs,” says Charles Miller, a private-space entrepreneur and advisor to the Trump administration. “Neither can Europe. They all need to go back to the drawing board and reinvent themselves.”

With the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX has already cut the cost of space access by about a factor of 10. If it or one of its competitors can drop the cost by another factor of 10, all kinds of new possibilities emerge.

Countries that currently ride America’s coattails could have human spaceflight programs of their own. Universities, nonprofits, and corporations could claim their own place in space. Space tourism might at long last emerge from the world of science fiction.

One small hop, one giant leap

BFR is still in the planning stages, but it won’t stay there for long. SpaceX has been testing the Raptor engines that will provide thrust for the rocket for nearly two years. Musk predicts short “hopper flights” of BFR hardware in 2019. These will be mini-test launches in which parts of the rocket go up just a few miles to prove their mettle.

First flights of the full BFR hardware could take place around 2022, according to Musk, though he is well known for setting unrealistic timetables. SpaceX announced Falcon Heavy in 2011 with a stated goal that it would need just a couple years for an initial test flight — the one that, in reality, took place this past week.

The shift in strategy from Falcon Heavy to BFR for human spaceflight also means that Musk’s plan to send passengers around the moon sometime this year is definitely not going to happen.

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