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posted by mrpg on Friday June 22 2018, @03:00PM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the nobody-think-of-the-airplanes dept.

SpaceX just sold the US Air Force the cheapest enormous rocket it's ever bought

SpaceX has won its first contract to launch a classified military satellite on its Falcon Heavy rocket, beating out rival United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The launch contract will cost the US Air Force $130 million, far less than the $350 million average cost of United Launch Alliance's Delta IV, previously the heaviest lifter in the US arsenal. SpaceX's disruptive business model has proven itself in the national security arena, where it has won five previous contracts since its rockets were certified to fly military missions.

The US Air Force decision signals confidence in the engineering behind the new rocket, which consists of three modified Falcon 9 cores strapped together and flew for the first time in February 2018 after seven years of development and testing.

Also at Ars Technica and Space News.


Original Submission

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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Immerman on Friday June 22 2018, @04:01PM (24 children)

    by Immerman (3985) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @04:01PM (#696793)

    It's good to see that the hideously wasteful old guard is beginning to lose it's grip even on the military teat.

    Now, what do you suppose happens with the money saved as they move towards much cheaper launch systems? Reduced budget? More launches? Or more money disappearing into "black projects" that may or may not involve committing atrocities against the American people, or yachts and tropical cruises for well-positioned bureaucrats?

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by frojack on Friday June 22 2018, @04:27PM (14 children)

      by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @04:27PM (#696809) Journal

      Given the Air Force's primary launch reason is spy satellites ans secure coms. These are things they are supposed to do, things even the Russians expect them to do. I got no problem with this.

      The Amazing part is the plunked down money for a vehicle that even the manufacturer suggested had a 50 50 chance of working the first time out of the gate.

      You know they had a complete look at the plans. They crawled all over the production line, climbed inside of the rocket body. They've seen every bolt and nut. They are happy with what they saw, while the Musk Hater are still claiming its cheap shite.

      The Big Risk here is that the Airforce will do what it always does and start demanding tweaks, and changes, and will eventually "F35" the cost with stupid stuff.

      Maybe as long as they are only contracting for launches, there's less chance of this. But don't bet on it. They are the Air Force. Its what they do.

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      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by bob_super on Friday June 22 2018, @04:48PM

        by bob_super (1357) on Friday June 22 2018, @04:48PM (#696822)

        There should be two more FH lauches this year, and probably a few next year.
        Before their bird flies, the AF will get a chance to trigger the "oops, you have problems" clause that is pretty certainly in the contract. If they had waited until after those launches (for the same amount of on-the-ground due diligence), they may have been further down the queue and lost a year (or a lot of money to ULA).

        It's a good strategic move to announce this early, for this launch, to help future launches, and as a no-risk warning to the incumbent.

      • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday June 22 2018, @04:55PM (10 children)

        by Immerman (3985) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @04:55PM (#696827)

        What does a claimed 50/50 chance of failure of the first test vehicle have to do with ongoing safety? The first launch was testing many unproven systems on one of the largest rockets ever built - you *expect* such things to have a high chance of failing in unexpected ways the first time you test them - that's WHY you do the tests.

        I don't think your Big Risk actually exists though - unlike the F35, etc, where the the Air Force is the primary customer and direct source of development funds, they're only one small end-stage client of SpaceX - they're unlikely to have the leverage to demand significant changes, especially since SpaceX has already declared they are deprecating both the F9 and FH in favor of the BFR. I'm not certain SpaceX would consider major revisions even if the Air Force was willing to completely foot the bill - it would be a distraction from their primary engineering and business plan, not to mention requiring that old production lines remain in operation rather than being retooled for BFR production - something that would dramatically increase the necessary "break even" funding from the Air Force.

        • (Score: 2) by frojack on Friday June 22 2018, @05:45PM (9 children)

          by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @05:45PM (#696858) Journal

          Actually SpaceX is not deprecating the F9. Its their bread and butter machine, and will have customers for a long time to come.
          They don't at this time have plans for continued development, because they see it feature complete.
          But that could change at any time.

          Tesla is not so stupid as to drop everything and concentrate only on BFR when the vast majority of payloads only need F9.

          --
          No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
          • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Friday June 22 2018, @05:56PM (2 children)

            by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @05:56PM (#696862) Journal

            Tesla is not so stupid as to drop everything and concentrate only on BFR when the vast majority of payloads only need F9.

            Doesn't Tesla already have its hands full with producing earth bound cars?

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          • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday June 22 2018, @06:26PM

            by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday June 22 2018, @06:26PM (#696874) Journal

            While they will not drop everything for the BFR development (they are working on Crew Dragon for example), they will have no qualms about replacing all F9 flights with BFRs *eventually*, if a reusable BFR flight is cheaper than any F9 flight. The extra payload capacity just becomes a big buffer that allows them to get the entire rocket landed. 100% reuse is better than 70% or 90%.

            There may be an interim period of a few years when F9, FH, and BFR are all launching. That depends on how fast they can convince potential customers that BFR is reliable and they can switch to it. SpaceX may also do more expendable F9/FH launches during this period so they don't have to accumulate obsolete boosters (some will be saved for rocket gardens, Smithsonian Air and Space, etc.).

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          • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday June 22 2018, @08:04PM (4 children)

            by Immerman (3985) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @08:04PM (#696923)

            I take it you haven't watched any of Musk's SpaceX talks this year. He's explicitly stated multiple times that the big problem with the BFR was funding it, and the latest design solves that problem by scaling it down so it can cost-effectively take over launches currently handled by the F9, eliminating the need to keep two production lines in operation. The plan is to continue building a backlog of F9s until the BFR is ready for production, and then redirect all resources to the BFR, using the backlogged reusable F9s to handle interim and sensitive launches until the BFR is established as reliable enough to handle everything.

            • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday June 22 2018, @08:18PM (3 children)

              by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday June 22 2018, @08:18PM (#696932) Journal

              He's explicitly stated multiple times that the big problem with the BFR was funding it, and the latest design solves that problem by scaling it down so it can cost-effectively take over launches currently handled by the F9

              To clarify, BFR is a scaled-down version of the even more ambitious Interplanetary Transport System [wikipedia.org] (ITS) that would have been able to lift 300 tons to LEO reusable instead of ~150.

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              • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday June 22 2018, @08:44PM (2 children)

                by Immerman (3985) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @08:44PM (#696952)

                The BFR currently being prototyped is also a scaled down version of the originally proposed BFR. The most obvious difference in renderings is the two vacuum engines in the second stage where there used to be 3 (4?), but there was a considerable size reduction as well. It seems they just kept dialing back their ambition until they realized "hey, if we dialed it back just a *little* more, then it could cost-effectively replace the F9, and we would have enough existing market to actually build the thing"

                • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday June 22 2018, @08:47PM (1 child)

                  by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday June 22 2018, @08:47PM (#696953) Journal

                  There are multiple configurations, such as the fuel tanker. Maybe they will optimize one for LEO only.

                  Also I say ~150 tons because the rumor mill thinks the vehicle height and payload capacity will be boosted a little bit.

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                  • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday June 22 2018, @08:58PM

                    by Immerman (3985) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @08:58PM (#696959)

                    Yes there are, but they are seemingly all build on basically the same "rocket" base (fuel tank size notwithstanding)

                    Hmm, Wikipedia says the BFR was unveiled in September 2017 - I could have sworn the name had been tossed around for much longer than that, but if not then the ITS/BFR transition may indeed be what I was thinking of - it was late last year when the major down-scaling was announced.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 22 2018, @05:12PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 22 2018, @05:12PM (#696841)

        I wouldn't be surprised if the tweaks and changes weren't "suggested", or even caused, by the manufacturer.

        Yeah, we don't know how it was initially overlooked, but you're going to want a fuel tank to go with that.

      • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday June 22 2018, @06:21PM

        by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday June 22 2018, @06:21PM (#696872) Journal

        The Amazing part is the plunked down money for a vehicle that even the manufacturer suggested had a 50 50 chance of working the first time out of the gate.

        This may have already been mentioned in the comments, but SpaceX managed to convince them that because Falcon Heavy is based on Falcon 9 cores strapped together, which they have flown plenty of times including a few Air Force missions, that it has similar safety/reliability. A neat trick!

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    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by DannyB on Friday June 22 2018, @04:39PM (8 children)

      by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @04:39PM (#696816) Journal

      Don't worry. The hideously wasteful old guard will pull strings and get favors behind the scenes. It won't be public until announcements of the government suddenly spending even more and MORE money on the hideously wasteful old guard. Gee, NASA got a funding increase, and SLS continues to waste vast amounts of money.

      They will pull out the stops. Every dirty trick in he book will be used to stop the new efficient upstarts from cutting off their money firehose.

      --
      This Christmas season is the most likely to see Missile Tow instead of large artillery pieces being toed.
      • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday June 22 2018, @04:58PM

        by Immerman (3985) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @04:58PM (#696830)

        Almost certainly - but short of actual mechanical sabotage, I'm not sure it actually matters. Air Force launches aren't a big part of SpaceX's short- or long-term goals - they'd only be one client among many - potentially a big one, but if they never launch a single Air Force payload it doesn't severely damage their goals.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 22 2018, @05:16PM (6 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 22 2018, @05:16PM (#696844)

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny4NASA [wikipedia.org]

        By anti-spaceX activist Neil DeGrasse Tyson

        derp

        • (Score: 3, Insightful) by DannyB on Friday June 22 2018, @05:54PM (1 child)

          by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @05:54PM (#696861) Journal

          I might be inclined to support his Penny4NASA if he were not anti-SpaceX.

          I don't understand why he is anti-SpaceX. I knew he was, for some time now. I looked at this:
          https://www.theverge.com/2015/11/24/9792854/neil-degrasse-tyson-interview-delusions-of-space-enthusiasts [theverge.com]

          From that article

          A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments. This is how it’s always been. And the best example, I think, is Christopher Columbus.

          The government also has not stepped up and made that investment. The government does not have the political will to take on a gigantic expensive project like it did in the sixties, and pay for it. Private billionaires just might. Especially if they can build a successful space launch business model to fund it.

          Undercut the entrenched inefficient competitors. Take their business away. Raise SpaceX launch prices and still undercut the competitors, while making a tidy profit to reinvest into more development and other ambitious plans.

          Maybe I'm what Neil DeGrasse Tyson calls delusional. But it sounds to me like it might work.

          The government is fickle.

          --
          This Christmas season is the most likely to see Missile Tow instead of large artillery pieces being toed.
        • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday June 22 2018, @06:32PM

          by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday June 22 2018, @06:32PM (#696877) Journal

          Even the ballooning JWST program is a better place for your penny than SLS/Orion.

          If SLS/Orion was cancelled and NASA's budget was increased to 1% share, a lot of science could get done.

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        • (Score: 2) by frojack on Friday June 22 2018, @07:15PM (2 children)

          by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 22 2018, @07:15PM (#696899) Journal

          By anti-spaceX activist Neil DeGrasse Tyson

          He is PRO NASA. Your own link doesn't say a thing about being Anti SpaceX.

          --
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          • (Score: 2) by MostCynical on Friday June 22 2018, @09:43PM (1 child)

            by MostCynical (2589) on Friday June 22 2018, @09:43PM (#696987) Journal

            if you're 'pro' SpaceX, you have to be 'anti' SLS/NASA
            if you're 'pro' NASA, you have to be 'anti' SpaceX.
            This is a law on the internet. Stop adding nuance to debates (popularity contests/mud slinging/whatever)

            If someone with reservations about a space start-up, who is 'pro' an *idea* of NASA (kind of "to the moon" era NASA), who is reserved (I'd say "conservative", but that is too loaded a word, these days) doesn't come out 'ra ra Musk'/'yay SapceX', he is taken to be against SpaceX, with no regard to his actual statements.

            Most people who know about what NASA *used* to do, and, perhaps *could* do again, should be upset with the way SLS, and US Government priorities, have gone bad.

            It should be "lets go to space", not "but not on *that* rocket"

             

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