Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Big Rockets and a New Launch Site (For Real)

So, the SpaceX announcement of their new "something big" happened earlier today. It's not quite what I joked about yesterday, but it's still very impressive. In many respects, it's much of what was predicted: Falcon Heavy official announcement, a new launch site at Vandenberg capable of launching the Heavy, and modifications to their launch site at Cape Canaveral to be able to launch the Heavy there too (the current integration building is not large enough for the three-core Heavy). However, as always, the devil is in the details, and in this case, those details are perhaps even more impressive.

The big deal started with the timeline: the Vandenberg site is supposed to be in condition to take delivery of the first Falcon Heavy test flight components in November or December of next year, with the launch actually occurring in 2013. They're starting construction very soon, but even with that it's an aggressive schedule. I'm not sure when the modifications to their Cape Canaveral pad will begin, but the design they show is interesting: the new integration facility for Falcon Heavy will be at 90 degrees from the current building, allowing construction of it to take place without requiring interruption of their manifested launches to the ISS or other commercial flights.

However, the impressive details continued with the specifications of the rocket. The Falcon Heavy as announced will use the Merlin 1D upgrade on the first stage over the currently-in-use Merlin 1C, with corresponding thrust and payload increases. Additionally, the rocket is to use what's known as cross-feed, where fuel from the side cores (see above) feed the engines on the middle core until the staging event where the side cores separate. Thus, after staging, the end result is essentially a nearly-fully-fueled Falcon 9 rocket, already going very fast and already very high. Cross-feed adds complexity, but it's not impossible--similar technology is used to feed fuel from the Space Shuttle External Tank to the engines mounted on the Orbiter. And the benefits of all these modifications? Musk today cited a payload capacity of 52 metric tons--more than any other current launcher unless you count the mass of the Space Shuttle vehicle as payload on the Space Shuttle stack as opposed to the 30 tons or so of payload in crew and cargo (which is a somewhat contentious assertion, but I'll say I think it's fairly valid). These assertions and more are detailed on the updated Falcon Heavy section of the SpaceX site, and the video here.
Click here or image for SpaceX promotional video
This 53 ton figure was quite unexpected--up until today, the SpaceX site had been listing a figure of only 32 tons. I suspect that cross-feed and Merlin 1D has a lot to do with that, but it'll still be interesting to see if they can match those figures in practice. The launch rate and associated price figures they cited are also interesting. Apparently, they hope to launch up to 20 vehicles a year, half Heavies, half Falcon 9. That's a tall order, and I'm not sure if I buy it completely--SpaceX has something of a record of predicting more than they can handle, and it's such a change from the current levels that they're operating at that I'm a little skeptical. I would love to be proved wrong--the payload cost numbers they cite for those operating levels are incredible, enough that the cost of launching a 1 kilogram CubeSat would be something someone like me could almost pay out of pocket in cash, but...it's a big step from two launches a year. Impossible? No, but still hard.

The other people that want more proof, I think, are the Department of Defense. Part of this push for a pad at Vandenberg and the Falcon Heavy is to try and play for DoD business, like Atlas V and Delta IV currently do so, and the numbers SpaceX cites are extremely competitive if they are at all close to the achieved prices--the quoted price for a Falcon Heavy on the SpaceX is something like a quarter of the cost of the Delta IV Heavy, while Falcon Heavy will apparently be much more capable. Again, grain of salt with all of this, but SpaceX is playing hard for things, including releases like this one now on their site which includes the below as a conclusion:

I have no doubt that the Falcon Heavy vehicle unveiled today is technically feasible (in that it could be built and flown, with enough time and money--though by those standards, Ares I was technically feasible), and I'm willing to give SpaceX the benefit of the doubt with their payload values and even their cost figures, given the assumptions they state in terms of technical upgrades and flight rates. I'm not sure if I'm convinced SpaceX can put those dreams into practice, but one thing I love about SpaceX is that they're going to try. ULA has had some really interesting ideas for years--the ACES upper stage, further EELV evolutions with Phase 1 and 2, and yet...where SpaceX is indicating a willingness to push on ahead of NASA or the current "conventional" market in the hopes of finding new markets and new value made possible with new techniques, ULA has not done so, even though they have a number of people in-house and out here in the interested observers area convinced their plans are just as viable as what SpaceX proposed today. The difference is that SpaceX is actually doing them.

It'll be very interesting to watch this all play out, and I'm more excited than ever to get done with my degree and actually get out into the field proper--it feels like everything's changing. Some for the worse, maybe, with NASA's recent direction-less drifting and the end of the Shuttle, but possibly in other areas of the field for the better. As if one big piece of news in a week wasn't enough, by the way, there are rumors that the Commercial Crew Development 2 announcements are coming soon, which should also be very interesting. Who knows, maybe you all will get lucky and I won't find time this week to bore you with my Aerodesign Team pictures and videos between all the space stuff?

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