SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk watched his Falcon Heavy rocket launch and uttered seven immortal words: “Holy flying fuck that thing took off.”
Musk is definitely not alone in his enthusiasm. Anyone tangentially aware of current events in science, technology, and engineering heard the collective ‘hurrah’ following the launch of Falcon Heavy on February 6, 2018.
This in part can be credited to the vehicle’s whimsical cargo, often called a payload. Musk’s own Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car, was piloted by a space-suited mannequin. The words “DON’T PANIC” — a reference to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — were plastered on the Tesla’s dashboard.
However, technophiles around the world aren’t just infatuated with some tasteful public relations.
“The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket of its size in terms of payload capability in history,” said Katie Gwozdecky, the Director of Space Systems of U of T’s Aerospace Team (UTAT).
The Falcon Heavy’s carrying capacity is indeed impressive. Currently, its only rival is the Delta IV Heavy manufactured by the United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Even then, the Delta IV Heavy has only half the payload capacity of the Falcon Heavy and costs up to three times as more per flight.
The real elegance in the Falcon Heavy’s design lies in its reusable boosters — side engines used to propel a rocket — that are able to land autonomously. The creation of effective, reusable space vehicles has long been a goal of space engineers—the greatest success thus far being NASA’s iconic space shuttle.
“[This] is beyond the functionality of any past or current rocket,” said Gwozdecky on the Falcon Heavy’s innovative boosters.
Proponents of reusable launch systems, as opposed to expendable launch systems that are currently prevalent, argue that reusing rockets may save money on future space travel. SpaceX has already taken full advantage of their technology’s abilities. In fact, two of Falcon Heavy’s boosters were already veterans of two separate satellite launches in 2016.These two incidentally returned safely to Earth, while the central core booster crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
“This is a tremendous success [for] the “new space” model where the priorities are reducing cost without losing quality and doing [it] with a smile,” said Gwozdecky. “The Falcon Heavy has the potential to take us to different planets, and to see the platform executed almost flawlessly in a fraction of the time any other company/government could do is transformational in the industry.”
The success of SpaceX raises a question on the future of space travel: What part does the private sector have to play in space exploration or does the government itself still have a part to play? Gwozdecky leans towards the former.
“Companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have shown that they are ready to push boundaries and take humanity further than government could, and that is something to be celebrated,” said Gwozdecky. “Not to say that the government has no place, it absolutely does, but it is more of an enabling role to help young companies or teams develop their technologies. The private sector is ready to go interplanetary, and that’s something we should be embracing rather than shaming.”
Conversely, NASA Instructor and Flight Controller Robert Frost once described the corporate-government dichotomy as too binary. “The role of government in space exploration is to do the things that the market can’t support, but the people agree are beneficial,” wrote Frost. “When we send a spacecraft like New Horizons to take close up pictures of Pluto, we do so because, as a people, we understand that science is important. This kind of exploration simply isn’t practical for the private sector because there isn’t a way to, in the near term, make a return on the investment.”
Regardless of your stance in the debate, it is undeniable that SpaceX’s results are palpable and exciting.
“We are beyond excited — watching the launch and landings was almost tear-inducingly inspiring,” said Gwozdecky. “As much as a rocket of this magnitude is out of [UTAT’s] reach, it is incredibly motivating to see [SpaceX] grow so quickly and not fall into the traditional trap of high-cost, high-bureaucracy of past space companies, but in fact be able to compete with incredible results.”