The spectacular maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket last week from Kennedy Space Center was big: literally, because the rocket is now the world’s most powerful; and figuratively, because its success promises to expand the scientific and economic horizons for America’s space program and Florida’s Space Coast.
While billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk had warned that the rocket might blow up on the pad, it thundered into the sky without a hitch. Perhaps more extraordinary to behold, its two side boosters — both recycled after powering smaller Falcon 9 rockets — returned in tandem to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station eight minutes later, landing on twin pads a hundred yards apart as if they were dance partners. Only the rocket’s center booster failed to perform as planned, missing its rendezvous with a drone ship in the Atlantic.
The Falcon Heavy’s triumph will likely give a boost, not just to SpaceX, but to the entire commercial space industry, as the growing ranks of private rocketeers rush to compete.
The Space Coast makes a comeback
Commercial space is an increasingly valuable sector in Florida’s economy; the industry is worth more than $20 billion a year to the state and supports more than 150,000 high-paying jobs, according to Space Florida, a state agency. For a region and a state that rely too heavily on lower-paying jobs, the industry is a godsend.
SpaceX’s success with its inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy offers more reason to be optimistic for another upcoming milestone for the company: carrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a Falcon 9. Boeing also has a contract with NASA to ferry crews to the station. Since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA has been paying extortionate rates for U.S. astronauts to fly to and from the station on Russian rockets. It’ll be a relief to stop spending U.S. tax dollars to fly Air Putin.
The economy on Florida’s Space Coast was hammered by the shuttle’s retirement, but it has come back behind the commercial space industry. SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Orbital ATK have picked up the pace on launches from Cape Canaveral. Blue Origin, a rival rocket company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is investing $200 million and creating more than 500 jobs for a manufacturing plant on the Space Coast. One Web, a satellite maker, is investing $80 million and creating 300 jobs across the street.
The Falcon Heavy now enters the competition for business with less powerful heavy-lift rockets, including United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy and the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5. But the Falcon Heavy’s price tag of $90 million per launch is a fraction of the Delta IV Heavy’s cost of $300 million or more, according to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
Bullish on the future of space
Meanwhile, NASA continues to develop its own, even more-powerful heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System, and hopes to launch it in 2020. But with a projected price tag for the SLS of up to $1 billion per launch, the chronically cash-pinched space agency, its congressional overseers and the National Space Council — the policy body reconvened by President Trump and chaired by Vice President Pence — will need to take a hard look at whether to keep sinking billions of taxpayer dollars into the rocket.
The Falcon Heavy, or another more powerful rocket now under development by SpaceX called the BFR, could stand in for the SLS on NASA’s crewed and robotic missions to the moon or more distant destinations. Or another heavy lift rocket might do the job; Blue Origin is developing one called the New Glenn, and United Launch Alliance is working on one called Vulcan. With every successful launch of a cheaper alternative to the SLS, the case for continuing to build a new government rocket will get weaker.
The pressure on NASA’s budget explains why the Trump administration has reportedly considered cutting off funding for the International Space Station in 2025. Doing so would be shortsighted; besides providing a one-of-a-kind laboratory for low-gravity experiments, the station — a $100 billion investment — allows astronauts to live in space and scientists to monitor the impact on them. With NASA looking at sending astronauts to the moon and Mars, the ISS could be more useful than ever.
It’s a great time to be bullish on the future of space exploration. As Musk said following the Falcon Heavy’s successful launch: “It taught me crazy things can come true.”