A New Rocket for Science

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The recent announcement by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) that it will field and launch its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle in 2013 has been heralded as an important and welcome development in diverse quarters. Reasons cited for this positive reception include heavy-lift applications for defense, satellite communications and human space exploration. But the Falcon Heavy also offers tremendous benefits to science, and that has not been as well recognized.

Among the most important benefits offered by this new rocket, with its 5-meter-diameter fairing and 53,000-kilogram lift capability to low Earth orbit (LEO), is that it is priced in the $100 million category — not far from the old price of the Delta 2 workhorse launcher for NASA science missions over the past two decades. But despite its similar price to Delta 2, the Falcon Heavy will be able to lift nine times what a Delta 2 can to LEO, and almost twice what NASA’s current heavy lifter for science, the largest Atlas 5, can — but at half to one-third the cost.

The lift performance of the Falcon Heavy opens up some entirely new opportunities for science, such as fielding planetary sample returns in a single bound, emplacing a multi-node lunar geophysical network, co-manifesting multiple large spacecraft on a single launcher, and relaxing mass constraints and therefore revolutionizing the electrical power available to future research spacecraft.

And with the vehicle’s combination of dramatically higher performance and dramatically lower costs, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that broad use of the Falcon Heavy by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate could translate to large and much-needed cost savings.

Consider: The typical annual rate of Science Mission Directorate launches over the past decade is three to five. If we adopt a figure of merit savings over current Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) of just $100 million per launch — a very conservative figure given the recent upward trajectory of EELV launch costs — then over a five-year period the Falcon Heavy dividend could amount to $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion in savings for the Science Mission Directorate. That’s enough to build and launch four to 10 additional planetary Discovery missions, astrophysics/heliophysics explorers or Earth science missions over a decade.

Importantly, however, the benefits to science that the Falcon Heavy offers don’t stop with the potential for steep launch cost savings. The rocket offers so much lift capacity relative to its competitors that it also will be able to:

  • Enable co-manifesting of science missions with commercial satellites.
  • Remove the tight launch mass constraints on science satellites and planetary probes that often drive development costs.

These opportunities can further extend the Falcon Heavy’s cost savings and help resuscitate beleaguered Earth and space science disciplines.

And given the tough outlook for the Science Mission Directorate (and indeed all of NASA’s) budget in the coming cost-constrained years, combined with the upward pressure of science missions in overrun, the Falcon Heavy looks like rare and much-welcomed relief, a strongly positive indicator in a world filled with too many foreboding challenges to science at NASA.

That said, the promise offered by the introduction of the Falcon Heavy cannot be realized until NASA places this vehicle in its permitted science mission launcher catalog. As such, one hopes that the agency will reduce the flight experience metrics needed to get the rocket into the science mission launch queue as soon as possible. This might entail taking a little more risk than is sometimes desired, but in my view this risk is greatly outweighed by the potential to enable so many additional science missions to come to fruition from the accrued cost savings.

Given the urgency of the times, the many pressing needs of NASA’s science mission disciplines, and the current climate’s increased taxpayer scrutiny, a sensible but accelerated approach by NASA to bringing the Falcon Heavy through the launch certification process and into its catalog of launchers seems sound policy.

Scientists and science advisory committees have a role to play here alongside the agency, by making recommendations along these same lines, so that the cost relief that the Falcon Heavy offers can create a healthier science mission launch manifest sooner rather than later.

 

S. Alan Stern is an aerospace consultant and NASA’s former associate administrator in charge of science. He is the chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.