SpaceX Falcon Heavy raised for 1st time at Kennedy Space Center
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — For the first time, SpaceX used its “strongback” hydraulic mechanism to lift its three-core Falcon Heavy rocket into a vertical position at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The vehicle will likely face more ground tests and preparations in advance of its liftoff, which is currently slated for no earlier than January 2018.
Moving on up
The strongback slowly tilted the Falcon Heavy to its vertical launch position onto LC-39A on December 28, 2017, testing the system’s ability to handle a vehicle that amounts to a full Falcon 9 with two extra first stages attached. The test appeared to be conducted successfully.
Before the 3.1-million-pound (1.4-million-kilogram) Falcon Heavy can fly off from LC-39A, it will need to undergo a brief static ground test of its engines on the pad. SpaceX has not shared publicly when such a test will be conducted.
The test and the liftoff itself pose a potential hazard to the historic launch pad, which was built for the Apollo Moon program in the 1960s and last flew a Space Shuttle on July 8, 2011. SpaceX has performed over a dozen static-fire tests on LC-39A, but never with 27 Merlin engines at one time.
If there is a major problem of some sort while testing Falcon Heavy, SpaceX just finished a 10-month effort to refurbish Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after a Falcon 9 exploded during fueling before a static test.
Assuming all goes well, however, the Falcon Heavy will attempt to launch a red Tesla Roadster into a “billion-year elliptic Mars orbit” in lieu of concrete or steel mass simulators, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk described as “boring.”
Musk added the caveat on Dec. 1, “[…] if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.”
Tweeting and trolling
Initially, this payload appeared to be an attempt to tease or troll the internet in early December. Since then, it has appeared as a real thing on a post in Musk’s Instagram account titled “A Red Car for the Red Planet.”
When it lifts off next month, the Falcon Heavy will employ three nine-engine Falcon 9 first stages: a core stage in the center and a booster stage on each side.
The total thrust at liftoff for the first flight will be, according to Musk, 5.1 million pounds (2,300 metric tons). He said that the first flight’s engines will run at 92 percent, which would put the first flight at 4.69 million pounds (2,116 metric tons) of thrust.
SpaceX plans to return the two side-mounted booster cores to a ground pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 (formerly Launch Complex 13) and the core stage on its automated drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean.
A formal date for the first launch attempt of the Falcon Heavy has not yet been announced.
Video courtesy of SpaceX
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.