The Launch Landscape: Super Heavy-Lift Vehicles
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It can be difficult to communicate the scale of a super heavy-lift rocket taking flight. It is as if a nearly 40 story building were to untether itself from the ground and climb skyward.
The super heavy-lift class is the largest classification of rocket size and it describes vehicles capable of putting more than 50 metric tons or over 110,000lbs into low Earth orbit. The first rocket of that size was the Saturn V, which took humanity to the moon with the Apollo program.
A fact that helps emphasize these vehicles’ power is that the sound from the engines of the Saturn V was one of the five loudest sounds recorded, around the same noise level as the largest nuclear bombs ever detonated.
Only two rockets of this magnitude have flown before and only one of them is still around today. However, by next year we will likely have three operational super-heavy vehicles flying at once.
In this post, I’ll talk about these monumental feats of engineering and consider the changes they are creating within the space industry.
Payload Mass Capacity to LEO: 64,000kg
Price per launch: $150M
Falcon Heavy is the only super heavy lift-class rocket currently in active service. The vehicle is comprised of three Falcon 9 first stages oriented side-by-side. This means that the vehicle is capable of placing approximately four times as much payload mass as a Falcon 9 into low Earth orbit. While much of the commercial satellite market has trended towards smaller satellites that don’t require such a high lift capability, Falcon Heavy is best positioned to service the market for large, high-value national security and science missions that must be placed in higher orbits or even delivered to other planets.
However, the demand for such missions dipped in recent years. As a result, the Falcon Heavy has only flown three times since its introduction in 2018, with the most recent launch taking place in 2019. However, the rocket is scheduled for five flights just in 2022 and another five through 2024, so it is likely to have a busy few years ahead.
The Falcon Heavy’s first test flight in 2018 famously launched a cherry red Tesla roadster into an orbit around the Sun that occasionally passes by Mars.
If you’re so inclined, you can actually head to whereisroadster.com and track its current location, which at the time of writing is somewhere on the opposite side of the sun from Earth.
Space Launch System
Payload Mass Capacity to LEO: 95,000kg
Price per launch: $2.2B
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is both an incredible success of modern rocketry and a lightning rod of controversy. It was imagined in the early 2010’s and eventually became the cornerstone of the Artemis missions, which is intended to return the US and its allies to the moon in the coming decade. It is the largest NASA-developed rocket since the Apollo program’s Saturn V.
However, SLS’s development has been troubled by significant overruns and delays. Originally forecast in 2011 to fly in 2017 at a development cost of $10B, SLS has so far cost closer to $21B to develop and may not conduct its first flight until 2023.
While missed budgets and timelines are not inherently unexpected in the development of a novel launch vehicle, it is the nature of SLS’s technical development that makes the setbacks particularly frustrating in the space community. Many of SLS’s systems were chosen specifically because of their extensive flight heritage which would theoretically enable a simpler and faster development process. For example, the four RS-25 engines that will power SLS’s first stage are based on the same Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) that flew for decades. In addition, SLS’s upper stage uses the RL-10 engine which was first flown as far back as the 1960s. As a result, for all of the cost overruns and delays that have plagued SLS’s development, NASA has gained relatively little in the form of maturing novel technologies.
Payload Mass Capacity to LEO: 100,000kg
Price per launch: $TBD
Depending on who you ask, SpaceX’s Starship rocket is either a vastly overpowered vehicle with little customer demand, or it is a rocket that will fundamentally transform the entire space industry through how it reduces access costs to space. What Starship will be when it first launches, is the most powerful rocket to ever fly. It weighs over 1,200 tons at liftoff and will be capable of putting over 100 tons of payload into orbit on a single launch. Beyond its size, what makes Starship so revolutionary is its ambition for full reusability of its first and second stages. Prior to SpaceX’s currently flying Falcon 9 rocket, no launch vehicle had ever reused the first stage of its rocket. In fact, the idea of landing a rocket stage and reusing it was largely considered impossible prior to SpaceX. Starship seeks to accomplish a much greater challenge, landing and reusing the entirety of the vehicle, both the first and second stages.
In doing so, SpaceX hopes to greatly reduce the cost of launch access by eliminating the need for discarding any significant part of the rocket during launch. Without any lost hardware, SpaceX hopes to have its launch costs approach only the cost of the propellants used.
SpaceX also intends for Starship to be the rocket that first lands humans on Mars and makes humanity multi-planetary. Here’s a recently released animation of how Starship will make that possible.
A Rebirth of Extraterrestrial Travel
Since the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s, the world has not endeavored to put humans on another planetary body. In fact, since the Apollo program, the US has not had a human-rated transportation system capable of reaching the moon or other planets. The Space Shuttle, which flew from 1981 to 2011, was built to reach Earth orbit but never beyond. With the introduction of SLS and Starship, two vehicles developed specifically with interplanetary human space travel in mind, we are returning to a period of history where we will hopefully see humans on the Moon again and potentially even Mars for the first time.
The End of an Era
SLS and Starship, the two super heavy-lift vehicles that will both attempt to launch for the first time this year, embody a transition that is nearly complete in the space industry. That is the transition away from government-developed launch vehicles and towards rockets designed and built by commercial entities.
The cost and execution challenges of government rockets is quickly becoming unpalatable in the current space era. This was best illustrated in a recent House Science Committee hearing involving the NASA Inspector General, who serves as an independent watchdog for the agency. In the hearing, the Inspector General reported that a single SLS rocket will likely cost about $2.2B per launch. He further described the figure as “a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable.”
In contrast, SpaceX’s Starship rocket was developed primarily at the cost of SpaceX rather than the US taxpayer. Further, SpaceX aims to bring each Starship flight cost closer to $10M per launch, once the vehicle has been flying for two to three years. It is an ambitious figure, and the cost will likely start at much higher, but it illustrates the orders of magnitude difference between the costs of government and commercially developed rocket programs.
Furthermore, the Inspector General offered a scathing account of the relationship between NASA and the contractors that the organization utilized to bring SLS to life. “We did see very poor contractor performance on Boeing’s part — poor planning and poor execution…We saw that the cost-plus contracts that NASA had been using to develop that combined SLS and Orion system work to the contractors rather than NASA’s advantage.”
As a result, it is likely that SLS is the last of its kind. In recent decades rocket launch has become a form of critical transportation infrastructure, which is best suited for the private sector that can optimize for cost efficiencies and scalability. NASA pioneered rocketry in the United States and has successfully passed much of that knowledge base to private industry.
Consequently, most agree this is a key step that will benefit both NASA and the commercial space industry. Fully transitioning rocket launch to the commercial sector will enable NASA to more devote its resources to the groundbreaking fundamental research that has for decades advanced humanity’s understanding of our planet and the universe around us.
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