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Why is the Falcon Heavy Launch Significant?

Watching the news and listening to questions and comments I realized it is not obvious to many people why the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket this Tuesday the 6th of February, is such a big deal.

The short answer sounds very boring. I makes sending heaving things into space much cheaper. But a statement like that makes it hard for a person to get particularly excited.

To understand why that is such a big deal we have to understand why price is such a big deal. A lot of what we think about as technological invasion is not so much about technology as it is about price reduction. Home computers cause a revolution in how we work and live. Yet it wasn’t so much about technology as it was about price reduction. The first home computers could do anything that big mainframes could already do better. In similar vein SpaceX’s rockets don’t do that much which hasn’t been done before, excluding the landing of booster stages.

Once computers got cheap enough to get on everybody’s desk it opened up a whole new economy and way of working and communicating. The smart phone was a further development in this direction. Once processing power got so cheap and small we could fit it in a pocket it opened up the smartphone revolution.

When phones and cars were too expensive for the masses to use they had limited impact on society. However when they got so cheap that anybody could afford them it completely transformed society. It changed how cities were built, how people lived and shopped.

The point I am trying to make is that, fundamental transformation of society happens when things become so cheap that it can be used at scale.

What SpaceX is doing is reducing space travel to under 1/10th of what it used to cost.

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The Saturn V moon rocket from the 1970s, used in the Apollo program. Big and powerful but hideously expensive.

The Falcon Heavy can’t match the Saturn V moon rocket, in payload capacity. It can only lift half the cargo of Saturn V. However one launch cost about 1.2 billion in today’s dollars.

However the Falcon Heavy, with no reused parts will be sold for 90 million dollars to customer per launch. Given that this is not the full cost to SpaceX and considerable savings can be made by reusing landed first stage boosters, it should be easy to get under 100 million dollars for two Falcon Heavy Launches. That means for less than 10% of the launch of a Saturn V we can get the same payload into space.

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This opens up the possibility of resuming manned missions to the moon, by utilizing two Falcon Heavy rockets. Elon Musk has explained this can be done by having one rocket take the astronauts to the moon and have the second one return them.

However unlike the Apollo era, a Falcon Heavy moon program could be sustainable due to the significantly lower cost. This should easily be doable on present NASA budgets.

With much lower costs, we can have more flights, which means rather than sending a couple of guys to pick up a couple of moon rocks and go back, we can start shipping useful stuff and actually build some kind of infrastructure.

  • Fuel processing facilities
  • Oxygen production facilities
  • Habitats

Once you got a moon base you can do much more interesting stuff than you can do with a mission that just lasts a few days. As with the Space station today, we could imagine leaving astronauts there for up to a year at a time.

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Falcon Heavy is unlikely to be used for manned exploration of Mars. It is a 6 month journey and there simply wont be space for food and supplies for such a long journey on it. Also it would be too small space to spend 6 months in.

However it does means a significant upgrade in the amount of cargo which could be shipped to Mars. That would allow more extensive robot missions to Mars and the possibility of shipping infrastructure to Mars such as Methane fuel production facilities, for future manned missions to Mars.

Ideally robots could start doing the ground work for a future Mars colony once the much larger BFR rocket is ready for launch.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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