SpaceX’s April 7th Falcon Heavy launch a step toward new commercial markets

Falcon Heavy Flight 2 is likely approaching a similar stage of integration, now as few as 10 days away from rolling out to Pad 39A. (SpaceX)

A bit less than 14 months after SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy took to the sky for the first time, the company’s super-heavy-lift rocket – the only such vehicle in the world that is currently operational – has garnered a pending date for its second launch attempt and commercial debut.

While there is some inherent uncertainty surrounding the (once again) fairly new rocket, SpaceX has now officially filed a plan with the Cape Canaveral range authorities that would see Falcon Heavy nominally conduct a critical static fire test as soon as March 31st, followed one week later by a launch target of no earlier than (NET) 6:36 pm EDT (22:36 UTC), April 7th. Set to place the ~6000 kg (13,200 lb) Arabsat 6A communications satellite in a high-energy geostationary orbit, a successful mission that ultimately proves Falcon Heavy’s commercial utility could also raise global launch market interest in the rocket, including potential anchor customers like NASA.

Falcon Heavy enters a different era

While it could be fairly argued that SpaceX has already near-flawlessly demonstrated Falcon Heavy’s performance and basic existence with the rocket’s February 2018 launch debut, that debut is really only half the story when it comes to breaking into commercial markets as a serious contender. Above all else, the fact remains that Falcon Heavy is often seen as infamous for what is perceived as a torturous, delay-ridden period of development, a common partial misunderstanding that has not exactly been combated by the now 14+ months separating the rocket’s first and second launch attempts. In the industries that have the most potential interest in Falcon Heavy, on-time launches are a central selling point of launch vehicles, with affordability effectively being a luxury behind timeliness and overall reliability.

Despite the success of Falcon Heavy’s debut, what SpaceX has not yet demonstrated is the ability to reliably and accurately insert a large customer payload into a specific orbit, for a specific (i.e. contracted) price. Adding another partial hurdle to the path before Falcon Heavy, the rocket’s first launch featured a hardware setup that could be described as a one-off, owing to the fact that Flight 1 utilized a mishmash of flight-proven Block 2 boosters and one unique Block 3-derived center core. By the time that the rocket was ready for its first launch, SpaceX was just three months away from debuting Falcon 9’s Block 5 variation, framed as the family’s ‘final’ version. Featuring an extensive range of major changes to Falcon structures, Merlin engines, avionics, reusability, and manufacturing processes, this ultimately meant that the next Falcon Heavy to fly would be a significantly different rocket compared to its sole predecessor.

Falcon Heavy in its Block 2-4 (top) and Block 5 (bottom) configurations, according to official SpaceX renders. The most significant Block 5 changes are not necessarily visible from this perspective. (SpaceX)

While we actually know very little about what the task of re-certifying Falcon Heavy’s Block 5 upgrade for flight entailed, the minimum of 14 months separating flights 1 and 2 offers at least a partial idea of just how extensive the required rework was. With a long-delayed customer’s extremely expensive (likely $150-300M+) satellite on the line, there is a surplus of pressure on SpaceX to both complete this launch flawlessly and do so as soon as possible.

If all goes well with the imminent launch of Arabsat 6A and the USAF’s STP-2 mission shortly thereafter, SpaceX will have done a great deal to assuage many industry doubts about Falcon Heavy, particularly its practical launch availability and the company’s ability to ensure that its launches are at least roughly on-time. As of today, SpaceX has won five firm launch contracts for Falcon Heavy – three in the last year alone – and has the potential to acquire several additional contracts in the coming years, ranging from additional national security satellites from the NRO and USAF to flagship NASA science missions like the Jupiter-bound Europa Clipper. Aside from Blue Origin’s New Glenn (launch debut NET 2021), ULA’s Vulcan (also NET 2021), and ULA’s Delta IV Heavy (likely far too expensive), SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is also the frontrunner for commercial contracts to launch segments of a proposed lunar space station, with launches potentially beginning as early as the early 2020s.

Further still, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced earlier this month that the space agency was actively considering a stand-in fix for torrent of delays impacting its SLS rocket. The proposed mission would see a duo of commercial rockets – likely one Delta IV Heavy and one Falcon Heavy – separately launch NASA’s uncrewed Orion spacecraft and a fueled upper stage that would dock and proceed to accomplish the goals of the EM-1 mission, originally meant to launch on SLS. Aside from the prospect of another launch contract for Falcon Heavy, if NASA actually chooses to follow through with Bridenstine’s plan (unlikely but not impossible), Falcon Heavy could find itself another steady stream of potential launch contracts in the form of commercial replacements for planned SLS missions.

Either way, the long term prospects of Falcon Heavy rocket could potentially be both lucrative for SpaceX and immensely beneficial for satellite industries and national space agencies alike. If SpaceX can demonstrate that it has inherited Falcon 9’s now thoroughly impressive reliability and moderate to great schedule assurance, the market for Falcon Heavy could end up supporting a major fraction of SpaceX’s sizable launch business.

Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters landed side-by-side after a successful launch debut. (SpaceX)

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"Eric Ralph : @twitter.com/13ericralph31 I write about space, among other things.."
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