Spaceflight Insider

Musk: Falcon Heavy could fly as early as this fall

SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifts off from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A. Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. Image Credit: SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — On an Instagram post, SpaceX’s CEO and Founder has expressed less optimism than his company’s fans about the success of the “Heavy” version of the first flight of his company’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Elon Musk’s comments highlight his knowledge concerning the success rates that most launch vehicles encounter on their maiden flight, as well as the fact that the “FH” has 27 Merlin 1D engines in the rocket’s first stage alone.

According to Reuters Irene Klotz, that test flight was supposed to have flown in 2013 and Musk has noted numerous times that it is proving to be complex, even suggesting that it perhaps should have been called the “Falcon 27” instead. Nevertheless, supporters of the company have attempted to argue that the Falcon Heavy’s first flight has not been delayed, that it has not flown because the launch vehicle lacked a paying customer, and the fact that the rocket’s first flight would need to be a test flight, as was the case with the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9.

When it does fly, the Falcon Heavy will be the “most powerful” rocket currently in operation (by a factor of two according to Space Coast Daily). However, at present, it is currently in the same classification as NASA’s Space Launch System – unproven.

The former Soviet Union had tried for three years (and four launches) to have their N1 rocket enable their lunar ambitions – only to have each mission end in an explosion. Like the N1 (which had 30 NK-15 engines in its first stage), the Falcon Heavy has a large number of engines in its first stage.

Supporters of the Hawthorne, California-based company’s innovative efforts have suggested that SLS should be canceled in favor of the Falcon Heavy – often citing the rocket’s cost (possibly as low as $90 million per flight) and capabilities despite the fact that the rocket has never flown. Much like the Falcon 9, the expense of sending payloads to orbit is often the deciding factor for customers.

If SpaceX can bring the Falcon Heavy into service, it will eclipse the current highest capacity rocket currently in operation – United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. The Delta IV Heavy has one factor strongly in its favor – a simpler design. Whereas the Falcon Heavy employs 27 engines in its first stage, the Delta Heavy has only one Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engine in each of its three common booster cores.

However, should the Falcon Heavy enter into rotation at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, it will be a tough act to follow.

With the ability to send 140,660 pounds (63,800 kg) to orbit compared to the Delta Heavys 62,540 pounds (28,370 kg), the Falcon Heavy will be able to send more to orbit and at a lower cost (estimates have placed the cost of the Falcon Heavy at $90 million compared to the Delta Heavy’s $375 million) than their competitor.

If everything continues to go as planned, the Falcon Heavy will be launched from SpaceX’s facilities at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A with the Falcon 9 lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40.

Video courtesy of SpaceX

 

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

The Delta IV Heavy engine configuration is simpler, but because Falcon 9 is designed for recovery, it needs to have smaller engines to have a low throttlable thrust range for landing.

Great explanation of Falcon Heavy status.

Hopefully this time will be an accurate launch date, 5 years in the making. With the 27 engines being a multiplied risk, has SpaceX ever suggested a Falcon-9 or Falcon-Heavy with Raptor engines in any conceivable future? Seems one would want to get the engine count down, learning from the referenced N-1 example.

Nevertheless, the N-1 had a different Soviet-era validation and testing philosophy of a totalitarian mindset, as well as 60s-ear computer resources. The engine comparison is valid, but so much is different in technology and quality assurance philosophy since that example.
Great summary!

I wouldn’t mind seeing a Delta IV heavy with 2 Falcon Heavy side boosters instead of the standard Delta IV medium side boosters. 4.2 million lbs of lift off thrust. It should be a lot less expensive than a standard Delta IV heavy.

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