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Putting the SpaceX Launch in Context

Sean Kelly

The successful launch on Tuesday of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket—“the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two,” as the company is proud of saying —marked an important milestone for the entrepreneurial space company and for the overall U.S. launch industry.

The Falcon Heavy was lifted into orbit using three rocket boosters combining 27 Merlin engines. The vehicle, the size of a 20-story building, can put into orbit a payload of approximately 64 metric tons (141,000 pounds), greater than the weight of a fully loaded 737, and generates an amount of thrust equivalent to eighteen 747s, according to SpaceX. Once the Falcon Heavy was in orbit, Its boosters were sent back down to earth in the hopes of reuse; at least two landed safely, and in spectacular fashion, touched down at almost the same moment. The company hopes that the Falcon Heavy will be used to launch large satellites, telescopes, and other payloads too massive for other rockets, and that the vehicle’s reusable parts will help bring down launch costs.

In power and size, the Falcon Heavy falls short of the Saturn V, Wernher von Braun’s majestic machine that sent America’s astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early ’70s. But SpaceX is apparently working on larger launch vehicles. Last September, Elon Musk announced for SpaceX’s “BFR”—“big f***ing rocket”—which the company ambitiously hopes will be able to carry 150 metric tons (330,000 pounds) into low Earth orbit, considerably more than even the Saturn V could handle. Since the initial announcement, a few technical details have been revealed regarding the BFR, but very little is known about its development and price tag.

In addition to the BFR, other U.S.-based super heavy-lift launch vehicles are being developed by NASA (the Space Launch System) and Blue Origin (the “New Glenn”). With unmatched lift capacities, these massive rockets can be used to increase access to and operations in space, deposit larger payloads, and transport crewed missions to the moon, asteroids, and eventually Mars. If humanity is going to have a presence in the solar system beyond Earth, heavy-lift and super heavy-lift launch vehicles are likely to play an vital part.

But while the United States continues to develop such heavy launch capabilities, its adversaries and competitors are busy developing capabilities that could put U.S. space assets at risk. China, in particular, has been investing heavily in rapid-response space capabilities. These have included mobile launch tactics, such as launching from sea or from the air, and small launch vehicles, like the Kuaizhou series, which can swiftly be launched those mobile platforms. These vehicles, capable of lifting into low Earth orbit payloads of 1,000-1,500 kilograms (2,200-3,300 pounds), were used to launch an Earth observation satellite in 2013, with more launches slated for this year.

Russia reportedly has similar ambitions, with Glavcosmos, the launch subsidiary of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, showing interest in the emerging small launch vehicle industry. And just last week, the Japan space agency, JAXA, launched a tiny satellite using the smallest rocket ever to put a satellite into orbit, a modified SS-520.

Part of the reason for the growing international interest in such smaller rockets is the expected growth in the market for launching small and very small satellites. Capable of launching with shorter notice than their heavier brethren—and much cheaper, too—small-lift launch vehicles can be valuable in a national-security situation that calls for a rapid response in order to replace space-based assets. One doesn’t need to be especially worried about the future of space warfare to understand why the ability to quickly launch assets into space is increasingly important.

The Trump administration has an interest in rapid-response space capabilities. In the new National Defense Strategy issued last month, the administration prioritizes investing in “forces that can deploy, survive, operate, maneuver, and regenerate in all domains”—including space—“while under attack,” and “transitioning from large, centralized, unhardened infrastructure to smaller, dispersed, resilient, adaptive basing.” Additionally, the new National Security Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review stress the importance of continued U.S. leadership in space, which improves the resilience (and reconstitution) of our space assets but also has the effect of deterring adversaries.

To be clear, the United States is far from uncompetitive in this area. American flexible payload and launch capabilities include medium-lift vehicles developed by United Launch Alliance (the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture) and SpaceX itself under DoD’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. Additionally, Orbital ATK produces rockets with small launch capabilities that can be launched from its Stargazer aircraft. The concern, though, is that gaps in capabilities between the United States and its competitors and potential adversaries could develop as our balance of investment tilts more toward heavy-lift.

So two cheers for the Falcon Heavy launch—and for the many military, scientific, and entrepreneurial payloads that heavy-lift (and super-heavy-lift) launch vehicles will make possible—but let’s not neglect the need to strengthen U.S. small-lift launch capabilities, too.

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