(I think SpaceX’s manifest now looks promising enough that if it has a $1.5 billion flight backlog it will not spend any more money than it already does. But it still needs to secure additional funding. As of the day I wrote this at 8am EDT on 29 January, SpaceX had $1.2 billion in pre-certificates on its credit card.)
SpaceX on track to launch astronauts first.. (I think SpaceX’s manifest now looks promising enough that if it has a $1.5 billion flight backlog it will not spend any more money than it already does. But it still needs to secure additional funding. As of the day I wrote this at 8am EDT on 29 January, SpaceX had $1.2 billion in pre-certificates on its credit card.)
On that final score, which I agree is difficult to judge unless SpaceX decides to put the brakes on its plan to fly astronauts from the pad within 3-4 months, the following should be remembered:
1) The Falcon Heavy rocket is not a clean sheet; it has several important features that together make it hard to classify as a new or low cost rocket. They include:
1) The Falcon Heavy has been designed and built (as a demonstration or production model) for a commercial service. All that remains to be done is to certify it for commercial flight after launch. This is a much more complex thing, than certification for flight and has much wider application. As it stands, Falcon Heavy is being flown primarily to test ground hardware which will be a long time before it can be certified for commercial launch. 2) The Falcon Heavy has a reusable upper stage for its flight to LEO (at a price of $85-$100 million and 20% margin) rather than a reusable upper stage for a launch. This will reduce the cost per flight. Again, a large part of SpaceX’s price reduction in its “reusable” upper stage is due to its choice to use a full first stage to reduce the cost of the second stage and its return to Earth as easily as possible. Both these ideas will lead to significant savings for SpaceX in their pricing of the Falcon Heavy and their profit margins in its first stage.
I expect both of these features to make the Falcon Heavy affordable, much more affordable, than before (and then some). But I do not know if Falcon Heavy is a new high cost rocket. A lot of it will depend on if it is possible (but not likely) to retrofit the Block 5 and Block 5’s Merlin engines later.
2) SpaceX is building a large rocket and its first operational vehicle, Falcon Heavy. This is a much larger cost, than a Block-5 and Block-5. It is too big, expensive to fly, and not flexible enough to be modified for use by other company’s programs. As such, it has to be as big or bigger than the Block-3’s Merlin.
3) If Elon Musk successfully does some of these things, he should probably be able to find some way to fly Falcon Heavy as the first (and most expensive) segment of a large, multiple stage rocket system, which is similar to the Space Shuttle. He should also be able to find some way to fly it as the first segment of a larger rocket (such as a LEO satellite) or an all solar electric spacecraft (which could use an integrated Falcon-Heavy upper stage).
The answer to the “Who will fly it?” question is obvious. While the majority of the Space Shuttle was re-used by multiple companies it was not able to survive on its own while carrying the passengers it was intended to carry. If SpaceX could re-use the Falcon Heavy and recover it, it could serve as a demonstration of the reusable Falcon-Newton approach. It also gives SpaceX a chance to show off one of its other advanced technologies like an extended life booster for Mars. It would also provide opportunity to demonstrate a “first in space” experience in terms of using the Falcon Heavy to launch commercial satellites and/or Mars landings.
It is possible that the Falcon Heavy and its first two flights will be paid by the various government programs that SpaceX will be working with on this project. But those programs are getting many new programs on the launch bandwagon. After all, the first flight of the Space Shuttle was a NASA program. So, should the government pay the costs for a Falcon Heavy? Or should those costs be paid on some other basis? Or can SpaceX actually find a way to get these new programs on board? Either way, I suspect the decision should be made soon.