After successful Falcon Heavy launch, what about NASA's SLS?

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy vs. future NASA SLS heavy-lift rocket

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – SpaceX CEO Elon Musk set low expectations for Tuesday’s debut launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center.

Musk said he would consider the test flight of the world's most powerful rocket in operation a success if it cleared the launch tower at KSC launch pad 39A. The test flight exceeded expectations with a nearly flawless launch.

Both rocket side boosters gently landed themselves in tandem at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster continued on into deep space.

"I guess it taught me, like, crazy things can come true," Musk said at a press conference after the launch. "I really didn't think this would work.  When I see the rocket lift off, I see, like, 1,000 things that could not work and it's amazing when they do."

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Falcon Heavy launches from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A on Feb. 6, 2018.

SpaceX has several commercial and military customers lined up to launch large satellites on the Falcon Heavy and is in the process of certifying the Heavy for government payloads. But the capabilities of the Heavy don't stop there, Musk said.

"It can launch more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world, so it's kind of up to the customer what they might want to launch, but it can launch direct to Pluto and beyond," Musk said. "It can do anything you want. You can send people back to the moon with a bunch of launches with the Falcon Heavy and do orbital refilling."

All 27 Merlin engines firing together at liftoff produce 5.1 million pounds of thrust, capable of carrying 140,660 pounds into low earth orbit. The payload on Tuesday's flight, Musk's Tesla roadster, weighs about 2,700 pounds.

The cost of a Falcon Heavy launch, according to Musk, is $90 million. A Falcon 9 single-booster launch costs an estimated $60 million, even though the Heavy has three times the lift capability.

"Because in both cases the only thing that is expended is upper stage," Musk said.
Musk plans to begin recovering more hardware on the rocket, including the payload fairings that make up the nose cone, which would save even more money.

"I think it's going to encourage other companies and countries to say, 'Hey, if SpaceX, a commercial company, can do this, and nobody paid for the Falcon Heavy-- it was paid for with internal funds --then they could do it too,'" Musk said. "So I think it's going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say 'Hey we can do bigger and better, which is great. We want a new space race!'" 

When NASA's Space Launch System, known as SLS, is complete, it will become the world's most powerful operational rocket, generating as much as 9.2 million pounds of thrust upon liftoff. 

The SLS has been in development since before the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

The launch system "provides a critical heavy-lift capability, powering people and cargo beyond our moon and into deep space," according to NASA contractor Boeing. "SLS launches larger payloads farther in our solar system, faster than ever before possible. It will be the most powerful rocket ever built, enabling diverse exploration, science and security missions."

Each flight is projected to cost $1 billion per launch, however.

The first test flight of the SLS, Exploration Mission-1, has slipped several times, and now expected no earlier than 2019. A crewed test flight isn't expected until at least 2022.

In 2011, NASA projected an SLS development cost of $18 billion through 2017. Space analysts have projected the actual development cost will exceed $30 billion.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy development cost was a fraction of that.

"I'm guessing our total investment is over half a billion," Musk said.

NASA officials said the agency will collaborate with SpaceX on deep space exploration technology, but critics of the SLS have suggested scrapping the program entirely and, instead, purchasing commercial launch services for deep space exploration.

SpaceX is also developing another deep space rocket that will rival the power and payload capabilities of the SLS, code-named the "BFR," which stands for Big Falcon rocket.

SpaceX said the BFR will generate 11.8 million pounds of thrust and the spacecraft and booster will be reusable.

Musk said he plans to begin testing the BFR with "short hops" next year at SpaceX's Texas launch site.

"I think it's conceivable that we do our first test flight in three or four years of a full orbital test flight including the booster," Musk said. "Most of our engineering resources will be dedicated to BFR and so I think that will make things go quite quickly."

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.