Falcon 9 Heavy will have 27 rocket engines firing at lift off. Courtesy: SpaceX
Flushed with success after its Falcon 9/Dragon launch to the International Space Station, the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) firm which was set up by former internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, has announced that it now has a commercial launch contract with Intelsat to launch commercial communications satellites via its Falcon 9 Heavy rocket.
This announcement is an indication that SpaceX is now threatening the dominance of Arianespace and ILS in the commercial launch arena. If a Falcon 9 Heavy can carry two or more large GEO communications satellites for half the launch price of an Ariane 5 or Proton M booking, then this could spell the end of their commercial operations as going concerns.
It is not only on the commercial front that SpaceX may dominate. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Heavy launch service promises to be less than half the cost of using equivalent Atlas and Delta rockets. So even the cosy launch provider-governmental relationships that previously benefited the likes of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Pratt and Whitney/Rocketdyne could now be threatened. The US Government Accountability Office has more or less suggested that the US Air Force should seek better value options when they consider their launch contracts.
While commercial and military launches will be its main future revenue generators, the icing on the cake is that SpaceX is now providing both cargo missions support to NASA manned operations and also intends to actually fly astronauts as well This will break Russia’s current manned monopoly.
As SpaceX competes for military, commercial and even manned launches, reliability will be key. If the competitors of SpaceX can point out regular launch failures then this might change the firm’s prospects. The heavy-lift version of the Falcon 9 effectively has three standard Falcon 9 first stage rockets strapped together. While SpaceX points out the redundancy benefit of having so many engines in the case of any in-flight shutdowns, some may be fretful about having 27 liquid fuel Merlin 1D engines all firing at lift off,
For the most part, the fewer engines a launch vehicle has, the better is its reliability.and economics. So at first sight it is surprising that there are so many engines on the Falcon 9. In fact, the Merlin 1 engine was originally developed for the Falcon 1 small launch vehicle and is thus undersized even for the standard Falcon 9 resulting in the need for nine of them on the first stage
With fewer larger rocket engines, a Falcon 9 and its Heavy derivative would probably become even more competitive and probably more reliable. As such, SpaceX is known to be considering a new larger engine dubbed Merlin 2. Nevertheless, for the time being, Musk and his rocket company is going with what they have. While Elon Musk many not have the optimum rocket engine, you can expect he will succeed given his track record to date.
This writer has been a critic of Elon Musk’s past optimism over his plans and especially over his expectations for initial flight reliabilty (the Falcon 1 subsequently failed three times on its first three flights). Nevertheless, Elon Musk gets this writer’s deserved congratulations for getting SpaceX from zero to a mainline launch and spacecraft provider in just ten years. And he did it with comparitively little funding.
Musk’s great achievement has to be acknowledged by his supporters and critics alike.