The Falcon Heavy vs the Saturn 5

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.

As SpaceX prepares for what it hopes will be the first static fire test of its Falcon Heavy rocket today, this article provides a nice detailed comparison between the new heavy lift rocket and the Saturn 5, the biggest rocket ever built and successfully launched.

But where the Falcon Heavy comes out ahead is in economy. The estimated cost of a Saturn V launch in today’s dollars is a whopping US$1.16 billion. Meanwhile, the upper estimate for Falcon heavy is US$90 million. That’s million with an “M.”

So, which rocket comes out ahead? In terms of sheer numbers, the Saturn V wins hands down, but the contest is a bit unfair. Saturn V was a Cold War project with a main objective to put a man on the Moon as part of the struggle to prove the superiority of the Free World over the Soviet Union. It was a cost-is-no-object machine intended to win a bloodless battle for world supremacy.

Falcon Heavy, on the other hand, is a business venture. Its job is to make a profit for SpaceX’s investors and its development always had one eye on the ledger at all times. Its design is different, its function is different. To compare it with the Saturn V is a bit like comparing a nuclear strike carrier with the Queen Mary 2. Beyond a certain point, the exercise becomes meaningless.

Read it all. The comparison is quite fun, especially if you are an American and proud of our country’s history in space. To date, no one has built a rocket that truly compares with the Saturn 5. And now, today, an American company is proving that such rockets can be built in the future, for an affordable price.


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  • Mitch S

    Excellent reminder of the accomplishments of Apollo (and done without today’s computing power).
    But the comparison is a bit fuzzy.
    It says FH is 12ft in diameter and has 9 engines making 1.7 million lbs of thrust.
    But that’s the core – FH includes the two booster sections for a total of 27 engines.
    Funny the writer didn’t catch that as he says FH weighs 3.1 million lbs – if it makes 1.7 mil lbs of thrust how would it get off the ground?!
    Looking a bit more at the economics, a Saturn can heft about 3x more to lunar orbit than a FH but for the same money several FH’s can put about 3x more in lunar orbit than Saturn.

  • Localfluff

    Falcon Heavy is as good a Moon rocket as a Saturn V class launcher.

    FH would have to launch twice to get the spaceship to LEO, and the crew then in a Dragon on a F9, all docked together before going to the Moon. Preferably to land near preplaced FH cargo on the surface to enhance mission length and scope. That’s 3 times $90 plus $133 = $400 million for the launches and the Dragon, as I gather it.

    Even a Saturn V class launcher, like the SLS, can’t launch directly to the Moon. It has to leave a return module in Lunar orbit. Apollo even had to turn around and re-dock with the landing module mid way, and the Soviet approach required the single Lunar cosmonaut to transfer between the modules in a space suite EVA. Docking uncrewed modules in LEO as a preparation is much safer. The crew only launches when it is confirmed that all of that worked out fine.

    I doubt even the BFR launcher would be capable of direct launch from Earth to Lunar surface. Dockings seem necessary in any case, and then the size of the launcher doesn’t matter much.

  • wodun

    It would have been nice to see a comparison of the payload dimensions. It looks like the Saturn V payload shroud is several feet wider than the FH fairing.

    Besides, the Saturn V is no competition to the Falcon Heavy, if for no other reason that no more Saturns could be built. True, the complete microfilm plans for the giant rocket and its support systems are carefully stored by NASA, but the men and women who built Saturn are all dead or retired, the machine tools used to build it are all broken up, and most of the components are no longer manufactured.

    Yes, it is a pointless exercise especially if anyone thinks it is about available options. Even if the the production facilities were sitting around someplace in working condition, the Saturn V still wouldn’t be built. There have been so many advances in technology, it would essentially be a new launcher. The problem has never been that a rocket the size of Saturn V couldn’t be built, that Saturn V production lines don’t exist, or that it couldn’t be built today with a better design. Congress never directed NASA to build one, unless you count the SLS.

  • Edward

    I found this explanation of why the Falcon Heavy took longer than expected to get this far. The original announcement of Falcon Heavy suggested first flight in 2013, but here it is 2018: (18 minutes)

    Mitch S asked: “Funny the writer didn’t catch that as he says FH weighs 3.1 million lbs – if it makes 1.7 mil lbs of thrust how would it get off the ground?!

    I read the article differently. The next paragraph says: “On the other hand, the two-stage Falcon Heavy has nine Merlin 1D main engines in its first stage and nine in each of its two boosters burning supercooled liquid oxygen and kerosene to produce 5,130,000 lb of thrust.” It is a single Falcon 9 that generates the 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

  • Mitch S

    Edward, looks like they corrected the article since I read it:

    “Update (Jan. 25, 2018): This story originally gave a number of rocket specifications that were incorrect. We apologize for these errors and thank the commenters who brought them to our attention.”

    I guess someone commented there or they read this blog!

  • Edward

    Mitch S,

    I’m glad they corrected that. There seem to be a lot of nit pickers reading technical articles.

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