With the first launch attempt of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy drawing nigh, a number of media outlets are beginning to relate the implications of the rocket and its capabilities for space exploration. While the space launch system will have much greater capabilities, it is years away from entering operational service and will cost as much as 10 times more to launch than the Falcon Heavy. If the launch goes as planned, the Falcon Heavy will be available now. A report by the Verge provided a lot of the material used in this article.

Exploring the moons of the outer planets

With the end of the Cassini mission to Saturn, NASA and the scientific community are anxious to mount follow up missions focusing on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Europa has already been manifested for a pair of missions, including a lander. Other potential targets include Titan and Enceladus, moons of Saturn. The Europa mission has been slated for a launch on the Space Launch System. The upcoming budget proposal for the next fiscal year will carry the suggestion that the Europa Clipper, as it is called, be launched on a Falcon Heavy or perhaps the upcoming Blue Origin New Glenn instead. Use of commercial rockets would knock off almost $1 billion from the cost of each mission.

Back to the moon early

One intriguing idea that the Falcon Heavy could be used for would be a lunar surface sortie mission. One Falcon Heavy would be used to place a lunar lander in orbit around the moon. A second Falcon Heavy would send a crew of about two to rendezvous and dock with the lunar lander, once its systems have been checked out.

The two astronauts would transfer to the lander and ride it down to the lunar surface, becoming the first humans to walk on the moon since the mission of Apollo 17 in December 1972. The Falcon Heavy could also land significant payloads on the lunar surface.

Since SpaceX is already developing a version of the crewed Dragon that can loop around the moon for its planned space tourist flight, one would think that the only thing that NASA, perhaps as a part of a lunar COTS project, would need is to build the lander,

The Space Launch System would undoubtedly expand American capabilities, especially when it is in its final form as a launch vehicle that is the equivalent of the Saturn V.

On the other hand, if SpaceX builds the Big Falcon Rocket that will also be the equivalent of a Saturn V and be reusable as well, then the case for the SLS becomes greatly diminished. Then the arguing and the finger pointing will begin about why the NASA rocket was even started in the first place.