It’s been 44 years since the mighty Saturn V last thundered skyward from a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The towering rocket, generating enough power to lift 269,000 pounds into orbit, had been the workhorse of the Apollo moon missions.
In November, SpaceX plans to launch its most powerful rocket yet from the same pad. The long-awaited Falcon Heavy is key to the California company’s plans to get more defense business, send tourists around the moon and launch its first unmanned mission to Mars.
But unlike the Saturn V, the Falcon Heavy will have plenty of competition.
Years in the works and the product of hundreds of millions of dollars of investments, a new generation of huge rockets will soon take off. Their manufacturers range from space startups to aerospace giants to the space agencies of the United States, Russia and China.
Because of advances in fuel, materials and electronics, the new rockets, while smaller than some of the Space Age beasts, may be more efficient and cost-effective. They will be able to hoist big spy satellites to a high orbit or ferry crews into space.
The rush of new rockets has prompted some to question whether NASA even needs to build its own massive new space vehicle — and whether there will be enough launch business to go around.
After years of a monopoly, the lucrative business of launching sensitive national- security satellites is now competitive. But at the same time, the launch demand for large satellites is not expected to change.
And in the case of SpaceX, the workhorse Falcon 9 rocket — which recently completed its 10th mission of the year — has been upgraded to the point where it can handle heavier loads than originally expected.
Whereas SpaceX first thought that it would fly the same numbers of Falcon 9s as Falcon Heavys, it is turning out that Falcon 9s will have two to three times as many commercial missions. The company’s May launch of the Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite on a Falcon 9 was originally slated for a Falcon Heavy.
“There is a part of the commercial market that requires Falcon Heavy,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “It’s there, and it’s going to be consistent, but it’s much smaller than we thought.”
SpaceX says the price of a Falcon Heavy launch will be at least $90 million, versus $62 million for its Falcon 9.
That hasn’t deterred rocket makers.
Last year, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos announced a plan for a heavy-lift rocket called New Glenn to be built by his Kent-based space firm, Blue Origin. The rocket, which will have two-stage and three-stage versions, was designed to launch commercial satellites and to take humans into space.
United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has proposed a new rocket called the Vulcan,…