The successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket had the entire space industry watching on Tuesday, and the Department of Defense was chief among those following the test flight, a former official told CNBC.
“This opens up a whole new set of capabilities for the Defense Department, and Washington, to be able to put up even more capable satellites and do it at a fraction of the cost of today,” John Young said.
Young was the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for acquisition tech and logistics and is now a SpaceX advisory board member and consultant. His role for more than two years in Washington was to be the person “in charge of all Pentagon buying,” he said.
After seven years and half a billion dollars in development, Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight had SpaceX CEO Elon Musk saying he wants “a new space race” from both corporations and governments alike. Falcon Heavy “can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond,” Musk said, and each launch starts at $90 million.
“Operationally, this rocket is exciting to me because it is probably a quarter of the cost, or less, of anything we have today — with twice as much capability,” Young said.
SpaceX built Falcon Heavy out of three of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets — a system that has now completed dozens of successful launches over the last few years. The three cores stand side by side to create a 27-engine colossus.
Young says there are missions the Pentagon can now do with Falcon Heavy, to put “a bigger satellite with a bigger aperture or antenna” into space.”
“I don’t think anyone can [compete with this new rocket],” Young said. “Musk said it’s ‘game over,’ and I believe that’s true.”
Young pointed out that the Defense Department today is one in which government acquisitions are “always under pressure” due to the costs or schedule to delivery. Falcon Heavy was developed entirely with SpaceX funds, Young noted, in a shorter amount of time than any Pentagon program.
“I don’t know how you don’t do that, especially if you’re the secretary of defense and you have chance to save enough money to buy a significant part of a ship, several fighter jets or a whole squadron of combat vehicles for the army,” Young said. “Those are choices we need to make for the troops today.”
Young also said he was excited that Falcon Heavy is “an American-built rocket,” rather than one that flies on Russian engines or systems bought overseas.
“In 2010 [to 2012] there were no commercial missions flying on U.S. launchers. In 2018 SpaceX will have recovered about 70 percent of the commercial launch market for the U.S.,” Young said. “That’s jobs in the U.S. — and that’s confidence the Pentagon can have that the launchers are built in the United States.”
The space industry is growing rapidly — Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecast the size of the space industry octupling over the next three decades to at least $2.7 trillion. Young says the government sees that growth coming and expects that “space is going to be crowded.”