With the success of the hold down firing of the Falcon Heavy’s 27 rocket engines, SpaceX’s Elon Musk had an exciting announcement that may or may not change the world.

Ars Technica is reporting that the Trump White House is particularly interested in the results of the planned launch of the Falcon Heavy.

While the rocket blowing up, a possibility that Musk has teased in recent statements would be one thing, success would have profound implications for President Trump’s plans to return Americans to the moon.

What about the Space Launch System?.

NASA, ever since President Obama canceled the last program to return Americans to the lunar surface, has been developing a heavy-lift rocket called the space launch system. In its final form, it will be immensely capable of lifting 135 metric tons to low Earth orbit.

The Space Launch System has a couple of problems, however. First, the SLS is proving to be very expensive to build and will be costly to operate, as much as a $1 billion a launch. The rocket will also not be ready for operation before 2022, at the earliest, perhaps later. The heavy-lift booster has encountered some intense criticism as a result of the expense and the delays.

Considering the Falcon Heavy.

The Falcon Heavy will have less capability than the Space Launch System, far less than half of the lift capability. However, if the February launch is successful, it will be available now and not a few years from now. Moreover, since it is partially reusable, the Falcon Heavy will be cheaper to operate. With the Blue Origin New Glenn scheduled to come online in 2020, NASA will have a couple of potent rockets with which to start the return to the moon program and hopefully sooner rather than later.

The commercial alternative.

We currently do not know when the Trump administration plans to put astronaut boots on the lunar soil, though a target date of 2024, the last year of a potential Trump second term, is not outside the realm of possibility. The Falcon Heavy and the New Glenn will be able to put a lot of robots on the moon, prospecting for lunar water and then even mining and processing it for rocket fuel. Could the two rockets also support human landings?

The Trump administration is not likely to cancel the Space Launch System. Such a policy decision would set up another fight with Congress when the White House has to sell a program to go back to the moon that will employ more commercial partnerships than NASA has ever before contemplated.

And that lift capacity, especially with the Mars goal on the distant horizon, cannot be underestimated.

On the other hand, SpaceX is designing another rocket, the BFR, decorously called the Big Falcon Rocket, which will have a similar lift capacity as the SLS and will be reusable as well. If the company succeeds in building such a spacecraft, would the SLS be justified, even as a backup launcher? That question is something that those making space policy, in the Trump administration, will have to wrestle with.

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