February 7, 2018

The Falcon Heavy: A Milestone in Humanity’s March Towards the Stars

When first delivering his vision for interplanetary colonization, Elon Musk noted, “Life needs to be more than just solving problems everyday. You need to wake up and be excited about the future.” Yesterday, he and the team at SpaceX delivered that excitement in a big way.

At 3:45 p.m. EST, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral with a payload that included Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster blaring David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and a space-suited mannequin. As of this writing, the two reusable side core boosters had landed successfully—and in amazing fashion—south of the launch site.

The momentous event is so notable primarily for two reasons: first, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket the world has seen since the Saturn 5 launched astronauts to the moon (the Falcon Heavy is capable of delivering more than twice the payload tonnage—about 140,000 pounds—as the world’s next-most-powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy—and at a third of the cost); and second, it represents the first privately-funded rocket delivering a private payload into low-earth orbit. Add to that the functionality of rocket reusability that made the Falcon 9 rockets a cost-effective competitor to the staid launch industry’s high-cost alternatives, and you’ve got one hell of a powerful market signal for new commercial space endeavors. In a nutshell, what this means is that the door to all sorts of new commercial space business just flung wide open for SpaceX and others pursuing new, more cost-effective business ventures on the final frontier. That’s the future that Musk and others (yours truly included) are counting on, anyways. But we’re not there yet.

While the success of the Falcon Heavy is truly a momentous feat, there’s a long way to go before you’ll be visiting low-Earth orbit hotels or taking a joyride to the red planet. As usual, before we see a true blossoming of commercial space enterprises, there are a host of government policies that need to catch up to the technological advances fueled by private industry players like SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

My former colleague Joshua Hampson detailed a number of these reforms in a 2017 paper on space commercialization (PDF). In particular, he highlights the need for elevating the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (known as FAA AST) out of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to grant the agency “the budgetary importance, authority, and presence to more effectively manage commercial space operations” while also providing Congress with greater oversight capacity. As he notes:

Making FAA AST a separate [Department of Transportation] bureau would give it a larger voice in the government and improve its budgetary position. The move would also separate its mission—licensing commercial space operations and launches—from the FAA’s broader mission to police the safety of the national airspace. The FAA generally deals with the mature airline industry, and focuses on safety. Space transportation is not yet a mature industry, and so the government agency that manages it has to strike a more delicate balance between public safety and industry growth and development. Unlike the rest of the FAA, the FAA AST has a legislative mandate to promote commercial space. Space is also not directly comparable to airspace, as it requires significant international interaction and orbital positions are not “owned” by any particular nation. A separate administrator of space transportation would allow that reality to be reflected and would separate negotiations from space from terrestrial airspace concerns.

Minimizing the barriers to entry in the launch market is another area ripe for reform, which, as Hampson notes, will require that the government “purchase services instead of building its own systems,” whenever and wherever possible. However, in order to facilitate competition for government service provision:

the government will need to use the same contract types for the bidding companies. At the moment, the certified defense launch companies operate under two different types of contracts. This results in different cost burdens due to varying requirements under the contracts. Before the launch industry recently became competitive, the [Air Force] used cost-reimbursement contracts. These contracts required intensive reporting from [United Launch Alliance], the only certified launch company, to ensure fair prices. With nascent competition in launch services, fixed-price contracts could be used and the reporting requirements rolled back. The [Air Force] will lose significant information it has on the internal workings of the companies providing launch, but the decision would be fairer across the two currently certified launch companies and lower a significant barrier to entry.

He goes on:

With lower barriers to entry, the odds of a robust and competitive commercial launch market increase. Such a market would lower costs of launch, [increasing] access for more commercial actors and lowering prices for government agencies. The type of innovation already seen in space would be furthered, as would the growth of the U.S. space economy. At the same time, the ability for the United States to quickly launch new defense systems, or reconstitute existing systems, would be strengthened.

Of course, many of these reforms are unlikely unless Congress, FAA, and the Department of Defense start feeling pressured to act. That may be a lift that even the Falcon Heavy couldn’t handle. However, a good starting point, and one that the Heavy’s recent success may bring into the limelight, would be for the Senate to confirm Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) as NASA administrator. Despite charges from critics that the NASA administrator position shouldn’t go to a politician, the reality is that opening space to more commercial enterprise is going to require a healthy dose of political acumen. Tearing down regulatory barriers is not for the faint of heart, and that’s precisely what needs to happen to get humanity catapulting into the stars on a regular, permanent basis.

Regulatory barriers and political horse-trading aside, the Falcon Heavy’s launch is a historic milestone, and one that should keep us feeling optimistic about reaching further into the cosmos. Or, as I put it in the afterword to Hampson’s paper:

There are still many hurdles to overcome and we must be mindful of them. Yet we shouldn’t let that reality temper our optimism, nor lead us to exuberantly embrace the status quo at the cost of welcoming the future. We should be excited about the possibilities of becoming a true multi-planetary, space-faring species. Humanity’s future lies amongst the stars. It’s up to us to figure out the best path to get there so that all of us may share in the common heritage of mankind. If we can get the rules right, the sky will no longer be the limit.