Can Neutron Compete With Falcon 9?
Are you excited about Rocket Lab announcing the development of a new cool rocket named Neutron but want some deeper analysis, technical details, and geekery?
Wait, so Rocket Lab is developing a rocket less capable than Falcon 9 while Space X is busy making an even more capable rocket, Starship? How does this add up? Maybe this is a much smaller rocket? Nope, the total mass on the landing pad of the two rockets is almost identical. Falcon 9 is 549 tons, and Neutron is 480 tons.
We need to dig deeper to understand why this is an innovative new design with much potential.
Understanding the Rocket Development Process
Building and launching rockets is a risky and complicated business. They have a tendency to explode. Thus comparing the current Falcon 9 payload to the planned payload of Neutron is actually not fair. This is the launch capacity SpaceX has achieved after many iterations perfecting their design. What is more sensible is comparing with Falcon 9 v1.0. This version could launch 10.5 tons to Low Earth Orbit. Since then, SpaceX has improved their engines and everything else about their rocket over many launches until they reached a payload capacity of 22.8 tons.
Peter Beck understands this, which is why he has set the bar low for the initial version of Neutron. By his own admission, they will aim for lower-performing engines. Why? Because high-performance engines are tough to build. They operate at very high pressure and easily blow up. Just ask Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos in 2000. They still have to perfect their BE-4 engines. The second problem is that high-performance engines will more easily wear out and need more service. A rocket meant for reuse needs durability and quick turnover time. Lower performance engines can give Rocket Lab that.