TIM ROBINSON looks at the significance of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch. A new era in spaceflight and lower-cost access to orbit?

Testing a new heavylift rocket, twice the power of existing launchers. Performing a simultaneous formation vertical landing of two reusable boosters. And firing a red electric sportscar in the direction of Mars, while David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ blared on the stereo. Each, by itself, would be newsworthy and highly significant , but put together, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch on 6 February elicited the kind of jaw-dropping awe, even among professionals and aerospace engineers, that recalled the glory days of Apollo. It also created a huge media event and interest among the general public – for what was essentially an uncrewed test flight. Only perhaps NASA's Curiosity landing on Mars and Rosetta's comet rendezvous has seen similar levels of excitement for recent non-human spaceflight events.

Even more remarkably is that, in this era of hyper-criticism and instant expert punditry is that the fact that two out of three boosters landed successfully and while there was lots of speculation as to what had happened to the central core, this was driven by curiosity rather than malice and a desire to catch Musk out. Overshadowed too by the stunning success of the Falcon Heavy launch, was the news just before the flight that a crewed version of the rocket is unlikely to fly, due to SpaceX now focussing its efforts on the even larger BFR (Big F*****/Falcon Rocket). That means that a Dragon 2/Falcon Heavy planned circumlunar space tourism trip, announced by SpaceX in 2017, (with two people already signed up) is unlikely to happen in late 2018.

These though, seem minor criticisms in the face of what was an astoundingly successful first flight of a new launcher and a global news sensation. Particularly impressive was the simultaneous dual vertical landings of the two boosters – a sight that even only until fairly recently would have seemed like science-fiction.

It is true that some critics will perhaps shake their heads at the cult of Elon Musk adding fresh disciplines for firing a car into orbit. However the launch, with over 2.2million watching live on YouTube really did feel like the beginning of a new era in space – and one that is powered increasingly by the private sector.


Why the excitement?

The future is here. (SpaceX)

This upstart space company, has now put other space launch providers such as ULA and Arianespace on notice that Falcon Heavy is coming for them. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, with its reusable boosters, is claimed to cost between $90-$150m per flight, compared to competitors charging $350-600m – some three times cheaper. Though both ULA and Arianespace are studying making their next rockets partly reusable, it is not clear even by aggressive cost-cutting whether they quickly match the Falcon Heavy, especially if Musk aims to quickly move to the next, even bigger rocket – the BFR.

The huge drop in space access costs that Falcon Heavy promises then, opens up opportunities of many more commercial and scientific payloads to be flown, with more flights maturing the flight hardware faster – a virtuous circle towards dependable, cheaper launchers.

As ESA Astronaut Tim Peake, talking to AEROSPACE about the commercialisation of spaceflight notes: I think what is worthwhile about these ventures are the companies that provide these services, they're at the absolute cutting edge of technology... in order to do these missions we are basically building components that are helping to reduce the cost of space, and helping the national agencies to progress with their missions, as well”.


Is bigger necessarily better?

How big in the launch market for Falcon Heavy? (Space X)

Yet while there certainly grounds for excitement on the possibilities of lower-cost space access afforded by Falcon Heavy, the proof will be in the pudding as to how big the market really is for a 63ton to LEO launcher. Certainly, FH may scoop up further DoD and commercial contracts and it has a ready-made customer in SpaceX's planned mega satellite constellation, but there is note of caution to be sounded in ‘bigger is always better’- with one example from recent aviation as a cautionary tale. Airbus believed that airlines, passengers and airports would all want a bigger, more efficient aircraft – hence the 555-seat A380. Yet the superjumbo has sold poorly – with Boeing winning the point-to-point argument. Airbus, discovered too late, is what passengers (and airlines wanted) is frequency to suit them. Will those innovators wanting to put a couple of tiny cubesats into orbit, right NOW, be willing to get in the queue for a fully booked Falcon Heavy flight in months, or perhaps decide that a low-cost smallsat launcher, such as being developed by Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, the UK's Orbex might get them into space faster at a reasonably competitive rate? Indeed SpaceX's President Gwynne Shotwell admitted last year that the commercial payload market for Falcon Heavy had changed since the company began development, and while it would be consistent it is “much smaller than we thought." Falcon Heavy then is likely to depend on governmental missions with large spacecraft.


“Failure is an option”

Video still of Falcon first stage explosion on the drone ship landing pad. (SpaceX)

Part of the negativity then from some quarters to Musk's rocket development, may not aimed at his pop culture references, or supergeek status, or even jealously of his launch success – but that, perhaps uniquely he has been given 'permission to fail', both by the media and by general public. Indeed, Musk understands that failure is part of the learning process and is happy to share his setbacks, calling a explosion of one of his rockets, RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly) or making a greatest hits clip video of Falcon failures. He has been quoted as saying: 'Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.'

Part of this certainly may be ascribed to the fact that SpaceX is a private company, not a governmental space agency like NASA or ESA – who, in the end, answer to politicians and taxpayers. Yet even in the aviation world, it is a truism that aerospace companies are very reluctant to highlight their embarrassing failures – even when these may be marketing errors, or technological dead-ends. Obsolete models, unsold prototypes and ex-customer liveries are quickly deleted from websites, lest they jinx future contracts or lower share prices.

Yet this degree of aversion to failure, whether it is in military procurement or aviation companies also many times runs in parallel with media messaging that emphasises how the newest aircraft has benefited from latest advances in advanced design, CAD, digital modelling and simulations, with thousands and thousands of hours of testing and nothing has been left to chance.

All this may be true but then there often becomes a huge disconnect when said aircraft (or defence programme) becomes overweight, delayed, over-budget and found to be wanting – causing a media storm far larger than had the company underpromised and overdelivered. Nimrod MRA4, F-35 (helmets, weight, ejection seats), A400M (gearbox), A380 (wiring) and 787 (batteries) have all suffered in the past from slick PR campaigns that have been, on occasion, derailed by reality. None of these (bar Nimrod MRA4) are showstoppers and in fact are a normal part of development of complex aerospace products, that see problems found, identified and then solved.

SpaceX, then, is unusual in that it has broken the mould here – with a media strategy that seems to have more in common with a episode of Mythbusters (that looks cool, let's launch a car to Mars instead of a boring concrete mass) than an established aerospace firm and an openness in sharing its mistakes and failures. That in itself, may help explain why it has attracted a hard-core of fans and enthusiasts who keenly follow its progress.

Significantly, SpaceX has even survived (so far) a launch incident with its reputation intact where a highly classified (and reportedly its most expensive payload yet) US spy satellite, Zuma was not placed into the correct orbit. Though it appears not to have been a fault of the company's Falcon 9, the USAF has been quick to give a vote of confidence in SpaceX, despite the alleged loss of such a valuable payload.

From an observers perspective then, SpaceX amazingly seems to have been given 'permission to fail' by media, public and even politicians, who seemed to have grasped that the company is breaking new ground here and that setbacks are part of the journey.

For established aerospace companies and even military organisations, looking in envy at this freedom, replicating this Silicon Valley 'fail fast, fail often' outlook is now a key driver as they aim to rapidly innovate. Quick and dirty tech demonstrators and rapid prototyping is in – with SpaceX as a model of how disruption in an an established sector can quickly occur.


Time to get serious?

With human spaceflight, comes great responsibility. (NASA)

Yet SpaceX's 'permission to fail – as long as you look cool' may be about to change in one subtle way. Quips about RUD, video clips of exploding rockets & a dummy looking like 'The Stig' from the old Top Gear at the wheel of a car heading for the asteroid belt may raise a smile when these efforts do not involve any humans on board. Already one company, Virgin Galactic, famous for its cool brand and laid-back founder has found out the hard way that pushing the frontiers of flight carries similar risks to those test pilots immortalised in The Right Stuff, when its experienced test pilot died in 2014 after SpaceShipTwo broke up in air in mid-flight due to a co-pilot error. 'Space tourism' in this case has more in common with 'extreme adventure holidays' such as climbing Everest where a percentage of participants die in the ultimate challenge.

While human spaceflight undoubtedlly glavanises extra excitement and there is still a place for astronaut cool, zero-G hi-jinks and fun (think NASA and ESA outreach and STEM projects on the ISS), SpaceX's future crewed flights (Dragon 2 to the ISS and eventually BFR) will be different in that it will be human lives at risk, not red sportscars. That may see a slightly different, less playful SpaceX emerge, particularly if one day lives are lost.

This then, could be the ultimate test for SpaceX, (and by extension private and commercial spaceflight) – could it recover fully from a fatal accident in which lives were lost? Musk himself has noted in 2016 that the first colonists to Mars, should be 'prepared to die' in what would be a highly risky endeavour. While many would agree with his honesty, and point to the history of aeronautics as being written in blood of accidents that have led to an unbelievably safe air transport system – spaceflight today takes place in a far different society than the pioneers of air. Today expectations of care, safety oversight and legal protections are far different than the early days of flight – so can SpaceX's 'permission to fail' make the leap to human spaceflight?

Here, too the question of size and scale arises. While it is possible that the loss of a handful of NASA astronauts in a ISS crew transport mission may be seen as an acceptable price to pay in exploring the cosmos, (similar to Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia) – would this kind of stocism scale up to 100 colonists aboard a BFR being vapourised on the pad at Cape Canaveral?

It is also important to note that this a is not a binary outcome either. It would seem extremely unlikely (given other competitors both private and governmental) around the world that a SpaceX fatal accident would derail other human spaceflight programmes (Russia, China, Boeing CST-100, Orion etc). However, what it could do, if there is a extended grounding and investigation, is delay the frequency of flights. Fewer flights, means that the cost starts to creep up again, and the accumulation of knowledge gained by quickly flying, landing and flying again starts to slow down. It was this arguably that doomed the full utilisation of NASA's Space Shuttle after Challenger exploded on take-off in 1986. The result, was that Europe's Ariane launcher stepped in to take its place and hoovered up the commercial market.

This acceptance of risk then, will be an inflection point for humanity – and its conquest of the stars – especially when private spaceflight and non-professional astronauts are involved. Will we pick ourselves up and carry on, or be shocked into staying at the bottom of the Earth's gravity well?


Stunt or science?

How to grab attention in the attention-deficit social media age. (SpaceX)

Finally, there are those, of course, that take issue with the whole 'optics' of a tech billionaire putting his a red Telsa into space, (even if it is electric) as what might be classed as a giant marketing stunt for his own car company. They would argue that this crass 'Top Gear' materialism is inappropriate and devalues the work of real space scientists working hard to understand the Earth, solar system and Universe. Others too, have noted that the Falcon Heavy's throw weight did not preclude an additional science package that could have been sent along with the red Telsa for free, assuming of course that scientists would be willing to a) risk a satellite or probe on a first flight, and b) could have perhaps put one together at the last minute if Musk had offered space onboard.

Yet the history of aeronautics on terra firma is replete with examples where pilots, adventurers and engineers pushed the boundaries of flight, with more than one eye on fame and fortune. Louis Bleriot, for example crossed the English Channel in 1909 to win £1,000 offered by the Daily Mail. Yet less than a decade later in 1917, London was under air attack from Gotha bombers – a development that some thinkers of the time had astutely anticipated from Bleriot's short hop. For Falcon Heavy, a similar trend is evident (and with Blue Origin and others hard on Musk's heels it is not the only one) – which is lower-cost access to space – with all the opportunities (and perhaps drawbacks) that it presents. Spaceflight is now for all.

Was Musk launching his red Tesla into orbit a PR stunt? Undoubtedly. But 99 years ago, a couple of gentleman called Alcock and Brown climbed into a rickety Vickers Vimy biplane to personally risk their lives for fortune and glory. Today we barely blink at the thought of a transatlantic flight. Where will we be in the next 100 years?

Tim Robinson
20 February 2018