Spaceflight reporters Robin Seemangal (Supercluster), Daniel Oberhaus (Wired) and Jackie Wattles (CNN) talk SpaceX's first official payload on Falcon Heavy, Elon's Tesla launch last year, and what's next for the rocket company everyone's talking about.
Full Episode Transcript:
Robin Seemangal: Hello everyone. Welcome to this week's edition of the Supercluster podcast. I'm here with Daniel Oberhaus from Wired Magazine and Jackie Wattles from CNN and today we're going to be talking about the upcoming Falcon heavy launch, which will be SpaceX's first official payload on their new rocket. This edition of the Supercluster podcast is powered by Dropbox. Here at Supercluster headquarters in New York City, we use Dropbox Paper every day to produce our editorial content and this very podcast. Today we're going to start talking about where SpaceX is at in their development and what's coming up in a couple of weeks, which is their first official paid mission on the Falcon Heavy. Last year’s was a big extravaganza. It was on the cover of all the newspapers. It was on CNN.
Jackie: Covered live.
Robin: Covered live on CNN. Just a little background. I was there. Daniel was there and Jackie was covering remotely, but Jackie, you've got some news.
Jackie: I do. I'm going this year. Going, going to the next Falcon Heavy launch.
Robin: Are you excited?
Jackie: Beyond stoked.
Robin: There was a lot of fanfare here last year and the launch was on February 6th. Over 100,000 onlookers gathered outside of Kennedy Space Center, which is the first time that area has seen that kind of crowd since the retirement of the space shuttle, which was in 2011. I think a lot of people would agree that since the retirement of the shuttle, there's been a dwindling interest in rocket launches and space. Would you guys agree with that?
Daniel: I think that sounds about right. There hasn't really been that much going on until SpaceX got ramped up around 2008, 2009, which was catching the tail end of the shuttle there.
Robin: Last year in order to drum up more interest around this launch, SpaceX decided to launch a Tesla roadster as the payload. Now the original public relations around that was the roadster was going to Mars, but that's not entirely the case. It was sort of just flung out there toward Mars. It was still a big public spectacle and people loved it. There was art, music to follow that inspired people. Now SpaceX needs to recreate this launch, but without all the fanfare. Do you think they'll be able to do it? Do you think they'd be able to get that attention as last year?
Jackie: It's a great question. I think people will still be really excited about it, because it's such an interesting rocket and it's the biggest one flying today. So I think that there is a significant number of people who are very excited about this type of thing. You see that turn out even for Falcon 9 launches. There's been so many of them, so you get this excitement. But what we noticed last year with Falcon Heavy is that there was this enormous piqued interest among the general community. People that didn't usually pay attention to space stuff were super excited about this rocket.
Robin: Sure. I think that just the sheer power and spectacle and the feeling you get watching that launch is something you remember for a long time.
Daniel: I mean, Elon for the last launch, he downplayed it a lot saying, "This might blow up, don't expect too much." It's almost amazing that they got such a high profile, high-paying customer this soon after the first launch without doing something in between.
Jackie: He kept saying 50/50 chance this is going to blow up.
Robin: I think that and just to address that Dan, I think a lot of these launches, especially this one coming up, was definitely in the books before Elon started saying that it might blow up. But I can imagine SpaceX's President Gwynne Shotwell being nervous about Elon's comments and what customers might think. I'm pretty sure the customers on this launch had to listen to Elon knowing they already had purchased a flight on Falcon Heavy.
Daniel: It was pretty uncharacteristic of him how much he downplayed the launch. He's usually prone to overstating things and at that time he was very much, “You know, it very well may blow up."
Robin: The irony of that is that launch went up without a hitch. There was a delay in the window, but there was no scrub. And we all know that SpaceX used to be called ScrubX. It was just really shocking that they just went up that first day, in my opinion. But yeah. Good for them. I think we should go back and think, "Yes, Elon did say it was going to blow up in that final hour, but they've been planning this launch for a very long time.”
Jackie: I was going to say to the point about Elon too. When he was going around making this big publicity thing, getting people excited but also adding that caveat that, "This might not work. It might fail." Bloomberg had reported in the middle of last year that it actually caused huge problems for Gwynne, kind of bringing this full circle with Arabsat. It spooked Arabsat because they already reserved the launch. They already knew they were going to launch the Falcon Heavy, so Gwynne had to do damage control and fly out to Saudi Arabia and meet with the executives and say, "He's saying this, but we're very confident in this rocket." Interesting full circle loop that we're doing here.
Robin: Yes, that is interesting that Gwynne Shotwell has to put out fires that Elon Musk starts.
Robin: Just, since we're on the topic of the payload, payload is Arabsat-6A. It's built by Arabsat conglomerate in the Middle East, which is an organization made up of other different nations that operate satellites over the Middle East. The satellite was built by Lockheed Martin, which is interesting. SpaceX is their competitor. It's funny that SpaceX does end up launching satellites and payloads built by their competitors and it's just the way of doing business in the space industry. But let's go back to when Elon Musk, in his more normal days… I guess...
Jackie: Were there though?
Robin: Maybe, maybe not. Who knows. But he announced Falcon Heavy at a really subtle press conference, which, those aren't subtle anymore, but a press conference in 2011. He brought out this weird-looking model, it looks nothing like the Falcon Heavy does today. It's a little bit stockier and shorter. That was him announcing to the world that SpaceX does intend to compete in this larger heavy lift market. Do you guys know how long it took them to build?
Jackie: Seven years?
Robin: Yeah. That's a long time.
Daniel: That's just when the engineers started doing it, because they were talking about doing this as early as I think 2003 or 2004. They were touting it around as if it was a thing way before they started even...
Robin: There was Elon Musk's Standard Time, "It's coming in a few years, a couple years, a couple years,"...
Daniel: Yeah, 15 years later…
Robin:..and then it's 2018, and we're all like, "Oh great. Well, we're in the future now, Elon. It's time to launch this rocket.” Why did they need this rocket?
Jackie: From a business perspective, it's a really interesting question, because in 2011 there was obviously a lot more, at least in terms of orders and how the satellite business was working, a lot more on the books in terms of large satellites that needed a really powerful rocket, going to geosynchronous orbit. I guess you saw that petered out a little bit. Satellite technology is getting smaller, there’s this enormous interest in small sats now. So a lot of people said they were crazy to go ahead and do the R&D to build this rocket.
But you know, at least from what I've heard from industry folks, there's always going to be demand for big rockets. You've got military needs, big heavy spy satellites, and you're always going to have big satellites doing geosynchronous work, so there's always going to be at least a little bit of demand.
Robin: A small demand. Even if it is small, I guess SpaceX wants to have that option of bidding.
Daniel: Prior to the Falcon Heavy, I think it was just the Delta IV that had a monopoly on military launches, because the Ariane rocket and they have a heavy lift capability. No one was really challenging ULA in that space, and so it was just, when you look at their manifest for the last decade, its majority is NRO and Air Force and the next six, seven launches for them were all NRO. I think it was just like, "There's money lying on the table here. Let's grab it.” And if you're offering a third of the price, you're going to dominate that market.
Robin: How SpaceX ended that monopoly was they had to file a lawsuit in 2015 against the Air Force to end the monopolized bidding that ULA had. They won the case, and that's when they started stacking military launches. They did an NROL launch for the National Reconnaissance Office. They did a secret space plane launch for the Air Force, and they recently did another national security launch a few months ago. But in any industry, government contracts are the most lucrative, specifically defense contracts. That's where Lockheed Martin and Boeing makes their money and SpaceX is looking ahead at their future. They're thinking they're going to need that money too.
If you look at the history of Lockheed and Boeing and other defense contractors, a lot of their money comes from warfare and surveillance and then they're able to have robust space programs at the same time run concurrently. Will SpaceX do that? Maybe not completely, but they're definitely staring in that direction.
Daniel: They secured their first military contract only a few months after the launch of the first-- It was in May or June I think that they-
Robin: For the Falcon Heavy-
Daniel: For Falcon Heavy yeah.
Robin: Right after the Falcon Heavy launched, the Air Force officially gave their seal of approval and that came along with another launch which was valued at $130 million. Now, let's look at this number. $130 million for a launch is ridiculously cheap. Let's talk about the power of the Falcon Heavy first off. It's twice the power of the next most powerful rocket which is United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. Now like Dan said, the Delta IV Heavy and ULA had a monopoly on these kinds of launches, but now they don't anymore. So if you're paying $130 million for a Falcon Heavy launch, you're paying nearly $350 to $400 million for a Delta 4 Heavy with half the power. How is this possible? We're not entirely sure.
Jackie: The great SpaceX mystery.
Robin: Obviously SpaceX has made a modular rocket -- it's very cheap, it's reusable, it's landable -- all these factor into the cost. This is a sort of an insider bit; SpaceX employees some of them will call it the Honda Civic of rockets. They last a long time, it's a very modular system, it's very simplistic, and that's why it's cheap. It's cheap.
Daniel: Are the first stage for the Falcon Heavy, are they the same boosters that are used on the Falcon 9?
Robin: Not the core. The side boosters are the same Falcon 9 sticks, the core booster is a little different for Falcon Heavy.
Daniel: So like, in theory you could reuse a Falcon 9 booster has already flown and strap it on Falcon Heavy.
Jackie: Right, and last year both side boosters were pre-flown.
Robin: Yes, that’s insane.
Daniel: I didn’t realize that, wow.
Jackie: It was crazy.
Robin: If you remember last year, the side boosters came down for a flawless landing, the core booster, however, crashed right off the side of the drone ship. That's because like we just said, it's a brand new core booster and it was a new design.
Daniel: Each time they’re landing these rockets, they're learning a little bit more. The odds of success have only gone up, I think, in terms of landing the boosters this time.
Robin: In the final stretches of them getting to a final design on Falcon Heavy, Elon announced on Twitter a mission called the Red Dragon mission. Now it wasn't really an announcement it was sort of this concept a few NASA scientists came up with; SpaceX was totally into it and it was utilizing the Falcon Heavy before it even existed. The plan for Red Dragon was they were going to use Falcon Heavy to create a cargo path to Mars. I think Elon Musk described it as a train regularly leaving the stations. Like every time there's a transfer window they launch Falcon Heavy with cargo. I think the transfer window’s like every year and a half or two years. Right, Dan?
So they would launch Falcon Heavy every couple of years with cargo up until they're ready for their human mission and they would launch this cargo craft called the Red Dragon, which is just like a Mars version of the current Dragon they use to send cargo to the space station and soon will be flying humans. What happened to Red Dragon? It got canceled. Because SpaceX ironically doesn't see a future in Falcon Heavy and we'll get to that in a little bit.
Going back to last year's first Falcon Heavy flight, there was a lot of debate and controversy around them choosing Elon Musk's old Tesla Roadster as the payload. There's been a lot of rumors, a lot of hearsay about how that went down. The former deputy director of NASA, Lori Garver, in an article stated that SpaceX offered NASA a free ride on the Falcon Heavy, but they declined.
Now, this is what she wrote in The Hill in an Op-ed. Other NASA officials said an official offer was never really made, so it was too casual and there was another rumor that he offered the same deal to the Air Force and they declined, but the Air Force said that never happened. Nobody knows who's telling the truth. Dan, was that a wasted payload?
Daniel: I mean I think that it makes sense that no one would want to fly because you basically have to put something on there that you're willing to consider trash because it's an untested rocket. On the other hand, I think putting a sports car on there was probably the smartest thing SpaceX could have done because there's no better symbolism for the birth of commercial space than a car that most people will never be able to afford flying across the face of the Earth.
Daniel: It encapsulates what SpaceX is about so perfectly and about what new space is about, for better or worse. It would have been nice to see some science on there. I'm sure they got some interesting data, but I don't blame anyone for not wanting to put a serious payload on top of that.
Robin: Right. Jackie, what do you think?
Jackie: Yeah, it's just evidence of Musk's again for better or worse sort of marketing prowess. He is an expert at knowing how to grab people and get them really excited about something and watching the live stream it's hard to think of anything more goosebump-inducing and do same or like...
Robin: Than a dude in a car.
Jackie: ...something that would light Twitter on fire. Right, than that Roadster kind of breaking out of the fairing and then David Bowie playing. But of course, there was a lot of controversy. Scientists were worried about possible biocontamination.
Robin: That's right.
Jackie: What if it runs into something? It is after all just another piece of junk that's going to be orbiting our sun.
Robin: It is space junk.
Jackie: Not that it's crowded out there in space.
Robin: A stylish piece of space junk.
Jackie: It's very stylish. It's kind of a trade-off. It probably did get a lot of your average person really interested in this launch, but it also comes back like the core question of this: what was the point? I guess it's worth mentioning too, that most first launches have dummy payloads.
Robin: That's very true.
Jackie: Like a block of concrete or...
Robin: There was a block of cheese on the Falcon 9.
Jackie: Right, the Falcon 9 launched a block of cheese. Monty Python joke.
Daniel: I think it speaks to SpaceX’s creativity. The fact that this company is so successful is just based on how they are able to reinvent everything, when most companies are launching a grey slab of rock. They’re like, fuck it, we're going to do a sports car.
Robin: Why Pad 39A? Why is SpaceX there? People know that Pad from the Apollo 11 launch, Space Shuttle missions to place the Hubble Space Telescope to assemble the space station, and like I said the Apollo missions. How did SpaceX end up with that Pad?
Daniel: I actually don't know how it came about.
Jackie: I have no idea.
Robin: Well actually, the specific meeting of that is unknown of how Elon Musk approached NASA. I have heard from the Director of Kennedy Space Center, Bob Cabana. He mentioned a couple years ago, he said look, "Pad 39A was rusting." So when SpaceX showed interest, Kennedy Space Center said, "You know what? They have the money to refurbish it and use it and bring some interest and some money back to the area, then of course.” That sort of got the ball rolling on Kennedy Space Center’s mission to transform itself into a multi-user Spaceport. That will see SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, just the list keeps going on and on. NASA is taking on that title of administration by literally administering other companies at Kennedy Space Center. That's what's happening.
Daniel: I think there's definitely an inherent symbolism to this particular Pad given that this is where we launch people to the moon. This is where shuttle missions are taking off from. I guess they had to find a customer that could both afford it. It's almost like flipping a house. They had this thing that no one wants. "Okay. Well this guy will come in and refurbish it and make it all nice and pretty." And they did. They have that really nice crew walkway now.
Robin: It's futuristic looking.
Daniel: Oh yeah. It's like it finally feels like we're in the space age.
Robin: Jackie will get to see it just in a couple of weeks.
Jackie: Finally. Very excited.
Robin: I do believe that SpaceX has that lease for 20 years, which is pretty crazy. If you guys remember when Elon Musk and SpaceX showed their first concept for the human mission on Mars for their first "BFR launch.” They showed that launch launching from Pad 39A at Kennedy. Because Elon Musk sort of sees that pad as like the Time Square of launch pads. He thinks it's a famous historic site. He likes being affiliated with it. He likes that SpaceX now owns it or leases it. I just think that like you said there's symbolism there -- and history.
Daniel: I’m amazed they haven't given it a new name because like Russia has that Cosmodrome.
Robin: That's true.
Daniel: It’s so visceral and just feels really cool. Then 39A, like most people probably recognize it, but they don't know the name.
Jackie: We need to put some of that Elon Musk brand cool on it. Hype it up a little.
Robin: It’s true. Speaking of hype, let's start with the media. Kennedy Space Center has not seen that much media since the shuttle. The shuttle era was they'll get like 300-400 members of the media showing up to Cape Canaveral to cover those missions. And then it was dead for years and maybe five of us at a time there now. For Falcon Heavy last year, it was hundreds of us. Why? Why did the media care? Would they have cared if it wasn't a Roadster? Was it the Roadster?
Jackie: Well, it's hard to evaluate because you can't really think about SpaceX in a vacuum without Elon Musk. He's obviously hugely influential, has an enormous platform. When he does something people pay attention, no doubt. I think the Roadster definitely gave it an extra bit of awesome, but the Falcon Heavy was interesting in its own right. I mean it's the most powerful operational rocket, the most powerful ever built since Saturn V. The fact that this was done by a commercial company and not done at the behest of -
Robin: A government or somebody.
Jackie: - or NASA or the military. It was kind of his invention and the price tag of $90 million. From a business perspective, you're talking about crazy opportunities for space.
Robin: Opening up space access.
Daniel: It's kind of a win-win too because you either see this giant rocket full of half a million pounds of fuel blow up or it's successful. [crosstalk] You see a hot rod come out of it. It's like no matter what you're going to get a show.
Robin: So Dan, is that why you decided to go last year?
Daniel: I think you made me go.
Robin: Did I force you to go?
Daniel: No, I mean, it was an easy decision.
Robin: When you're like okay I'm going down for this, what was the most thing that you were excited for or what did you expect from that experience?
Daniel: I mean everything about it was exciting. It was exciting about the idea of seeing a car, about seeing these jackets and the most powerful rocket. Second most powerful that's ever been built, but the most powerful operational rocket fly for the first time. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't kind of hoping it would blow up because it would also an incredible experience to see that. Also just as you'd mentioned, Robin, to see the rebirth of Kennedy, because I've been down there once before, and it was much more of a standard -
Robin: Right, it was a resupply mission.
Daniel: Yeah, it's just for like a Falcon 9, and it was kind of normal. When we were driving through Kennedy, there were cars lined up all along the freeway to see this and it felt very much just like you were back in 1969 and people were stopping what they were doing to look up and watch a rocket. That's pretty inspiring.
Robin: There was a lot of families out there too, just people pointing at the rocket to their kids. You know that image?
Robin: It was very Apollo era, kind of nostalgic in a way.
Jackie: Yes, CNN covered it live.
Robin: That's amazing.
Jackie: I don't remember if it was during the White House press briefing or it might have been right before or after, but you shouldn't quote me on that.
Robin: Does the interest make you guys do more? Do you see that and like, "I want to do more"?
Jackie: Oh, definitely. Yeah, yeah. I think we can tell how interested people are whenever SpaceX does something new and cool. Yeah, there's definitely that factor. I think just covering this type of news does its own purpose in getting people interested. It's a little bit weird, it's a little different. It's not what you're reading about or thinking about most of your day. It's kind of like a wake up, like, "There's a lot of stuff going on, but there's people, billionaires from Silicon Valley launching giant rockets to space every once in a while."
Robin: Jackie, you were one of the first people to specifically cover SpaceX trying to capture the Payload Fairing. Do you think it's important to cover the reusability drive that they're doing? Is that the hook? Is that SpaceX trying something that other people are not?
Jackie: Yes. I mean I've always been fascinated with their recovery stuff. I started covering SpaceX right around the time that they landed their first booster. Before that, there was so much talk about how it could never be done, people questioned whether it was even worth it. It involved such complex, crazy science that a lot of people didn't think could happen. I think covering reusability is... that's SpaceX's thing. That was their plan, how to get Falcon 9 to a $62 million price tag, unheard of, so reusability is very much at the core of who they are. Trying to recover a fairing, that's something no one's done before and it's wild. That's kind of SpaceX's thing. They're always trying to iterate and find the next way to bring down cost.
Robin: Just for the record, those payload fairing, that's like $6 million. That's money, you know what I mean? Every little piece, even if it cost a million bucks, Elon Musk wants that back. It makes sense to--
Daniel: He wants to be like changing nuts and bolts and refilling the thing. That should be all that's required.
Robin: [laughs] That should be all. Dan, what do you think about their reusability breakthrough? Is it a breakthrough? Is it something special? Is it going to change the industry? Has it changed the industry already?
Daniel: I think it's changed the industry and now, everyone's realizing that they can't compete unless they're doing this anymore. Aireon was developing new rockets and they basically just admitted a few weeks ago, they're like, "Well, SpaceX is the only one doing cutting edge work. If we're not figuring out how to land these things now, you're no longer competitive." You have two companies that have demonstrated landing and I think they're now setting the trend. Blue Origin and SpaceX. Everyone else has to figure it out.
Robin: Jackie, why are you going down for this next launch? You missed last year, we tried to get you down, it didn't work, but you're coming this year. What are your expectations? What are you looking out for?
Jackie: Well, I'm just excited to be on the ground, kind of watching how this team pulls it off. If they land all three boosters this time, it'll be amazing to see. Really being their first commercial mission, might be just reporting on the business of space and what the commercial industry is doing. Actually having a paying customer on this launch and it being a purely commercial mission makes it extra interesting.
Robin: It does.
Jackie: So, got to be on the ground for it.
Robin: Do you think that we'll be seeing a lot more Falcon Heavy missions or do you think that it'll be one of those rockets that SpaceX launches like once a year? I feel like the Delta Heavy, that cadence is about once a year. Like you said Jackie, that market is there, but it's not prominent. But, as we mentioned earlier and it's kind of ironic that the Falcon Heavy is already almost obsolete in SpaceX’s eyes.
While they were finishing this rocket, they had another idea. Let's combine the Falcon 9 and the Dragon into one vehicle. And that's where they come up with, okay, so there's four names that we've discussed. The first one was MCT Mars Colonial Transporter, ITS Interplanetary Transport System, then BFR, big “bleeping” rocket.
Jackie: “Big Falcon Rocket” is the nice way to say it.
Robin: Big Falcon Rocket. Is that what Gwynne Shotwell says? She says Big Falcon Rocket?
Jackie: It is the PR from the version of the name.
Robin: Now it's called Starship because, God knows why, Elon Musk was up at 4:00 in the morning doing tech support for some Tesla person, he doesn't know. He came up with this name “Starship.” Yay. That's what's coming next, we're watching SpaceX launch this heavy machine. They have an even heavier one coming up after that. More Saturn V level of Rocket. Now, what's this rocket for? It’s their ultimate vision, right Jackie?
Robin: What is that?
Jackie: Colonizing Mars. Getting people to live on other planets.
Robin: Is that possible?
Jackie: From a business perspective, it's very interesting. Because funding, I think, is obviously going to be their biggest hurdle. You know - it's difficult to even put a conjecture on it. I think that privately people have a lot of thoughts -
Jackie: - about whether it can happen.
Robin: The Space industry seems divided.
Jackie: Right. Yes.
Robin: There are the pro-Mars people and the anti-Mars people. Just going back to SpaceX's overall vision. The reason why the company was started was to land the first humans on Mars. That is it. That was the end game for them.
Jackie: Not much of a business plan.
Robin: Not much of a business plan. I guess this is arguable, but probably the most expensive and scientifically complex mission ever attempted by humans. Dan, yes, no?
Daniel: Yeah. My theory on this is that I think I've come around. I think they will put people on Mars. I think it probably won't be whenever he's saying.
Robin: Of course not.
Daniel: It won't be before 2030, but he probably will be the first person to put people on Mars. I think once, he being Elon, once he's had this-- this is a mission of pure hubris. Once he's put boots on Mars, I think the hard parts done. The real business proposition is putting people and objects around the moon and like, mining asteroids, and that sort of thing. If you can put people on Mars you can do that no problem. I think he's always kind of done this. He's like, you shoot for the biggest thing and then -
Robin: Wherever you land, you land.
Daniel: Yeah, exactly.
Robin: Well, thank you guys for stopping tonight. It's Friday night, I know, I appreciate you -- both of you.
Jackie: Thanks for having us.
Daniel: Yeah, thanks.
Robin: Just to prepare the reader for the next launch-- oh, did I say reader? Just to prepare the listener for the next launch, as of right now, it is Friday March 22nd and as of today the Falcon Heavy is undergoing a test fire where SpaceX will hold it down to Pad 39A, in which they will fire all 27 of the Merlin engines that power the rocket. I think that's about 5 million pounds of thrust. Going back to their competitor that is Delta Heavy is around 2.2 or 2.3 million, so that is the difference there. As of right now, the launch is scheduled for April 7th at around 6:30 PM, I think. So yeah, keep an eye out for that launch. We do expect that date to change. Obviously we're still really early.
Don't book any flights for Cape Canaveral until after the static fire. If you do come down look out for Jackie Wattles and myself and probably Dan, who we’ll be convincing to come down with us at some point. That's this week's Supercluster podcasts. Thank you again to our guest. Thank you again for Dropbox for sponsoring this podcast.