SpaceX set to attempt history again with Falcon Heavy’s first flight
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX is hoping to bring reusability to a whole new level with the launch of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket on Feb. 6, 2018. If successful, the heavy-lift vehicle should greatly increase the available payload capability of a single commercial launch. First things first, however: it needs to leave the pad on its inaugural test flight.
The shape of things to come
Falcon Heavy comprises a standard Falcon 9 core with two strap-on boosters derived from the Falcon 9’s first stage. It is designed to use a total of 27 Merlin 1D engines at liftoff. The rocket also includes a second stage, stacked above the core stage. The payload fairing on top measures an estimated 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall with a 17-foot (5.2-meter) diameter.
All told, the 230-foot (70 m) tall, 2.5-stage rocket should weigh in at some 3.1 million pounds (1.4 million kilograms) when it lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. It is advertised as being able to lift some 140,660 pounds (63,800 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit (LEO).
By comparison, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy can send 62,545 pounds (28,370 kilograms) LEO and the Block 1 version of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle is supposed to have the ability to send some 154,323 pounds (70,000 kilograms) aloft.
In keeping with SpaceX’s tradition of promoting reusability, after liftoff, the two booster stages are designed to return to Earth under their own power for a planned landing at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1), formerly Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The center core stage, once it finishes its job, is supposed to land on SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You.
The first flight of Falcon Heavy has been a long time coming, with the first announcement of such a flight originally projected for 2012. However, SpaceX’s stated focus has been on getting and keeping the company’s Falcon 9 rocket operational so as to meet the company’s extensive launch manifest. Improvements to the Falcon 9 has benefited Falcon Heavy’s development, which will comprise two previously-flown Falcon 9 first stages.
Falcon Heavy’s anticipated launch date shifted from mid-January to late January to Feb. 6. The flight delays might have been due to an abundance of caution. Nevertheless, the rocket was raised into a vertical position at Launch Complex 39A on Dec. 28. Potential static tests were held up multiple times due to unspecified reasons, with one delay caused by the short-lived government funding shutdown. SpaceX performed a ten-second static firing of the rocket’s engines on January 24, 2018.
Despite the anticipation surrounding the first flight of the massive new rocket, SpaceX founder Elon Musk downplayed the likelihood of a successful flight, noting in an Instagram posting on Aug. 4, 2017 that there was a “Lot that can go wrong.” Musk noted that his company’s new launch vehicle has encountered technical issues, notably with the 27 Merlin 1D engines in the launcher’s first stage, which has delayed the first flight.
Space.com has reported that Musk told an audience at the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development (ISSR&D) conference in Washington, D.C., “There’s a ‘real good chance’ the vehicle won’t make it to orbit during the liftoff.” Space.com quoted Musk as saying:
“I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest…Major pucker factor, really; that’s, like, the only way to describe it.”
And while NASA has not told SpaceX to launch Falcon Heavy from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a launch failure that damages LC-39A would create delays for SpaceX’s commercial crew program, which is scheduled to carry out its first test flight of the crew version of Dragon in August.
In addition to his public remarks, Musk also posted a “blooper reel” of the various mishaps that the Falcon 9 has experienced before getting launches and landings right.
To ensure success on this first flight of this new design, SpaceX is relying on rigorous testing of the things it can control, such as performance of the Merlin engines that will be used to power the core and booster stages. SpaceX told Spaceflight Insider, “Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters for this mission are flight-proven and the center core is new. Each of the cores have been tested individually.”
Fun with payloads
Musk originally hinted on Twitter that, in keeping with another irreverent payload flown on an earlier SpaceX mission (a wheel of cheese launched aboard the first Dragon flight), the payload for the first Falcon Heavy flight would be the “Silliest thing we can imagine.”
That “silliest thing” turns out to be a cherry-red Tesla Roadster sports car from Musk’s electric car company. Assuming the launch goes as planned, the vehicle will be launched onto a “billion-year” orbit around the Sun to the tune of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” When it arrives, the car’s orbit will roughly parallel the planet Mars in distance and orbital period. Its distant orbital placement means it should maintain its orbit (barring any other interference) for a billion years.
The Roadster, more of a gimmick payload than a typical inert mass simulator, weighs in at a mere 2,900 pounds (1,300 kilograms). However, once in service, Falcon Heavy should be capable of lofting payloads as heavy as 119,000 pounds (54,000 kilograms) to LEO, giving this described capability, it should nearly double that of FH’s closest commercial competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, which can lift some 62,545 pounds (28,370 kilograms) to LEO. SpaceX lists Falcon Heavy’s actual payload capability to Mars as 37,040 pounds (16,800 kilograms).
Part of a larger plan
Falcon Heavy is just one piece of Elon Musk’s increasingly ambitious plans for human exploration and settlement of the solar system.
In 2017, two private citizens approached SpaceX to be considered for a passenger flight around the Moon, a mission that would require an operational Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Assuming a successful test flight of the Falcon Heavy takes place, SpaceX still faces challenges ahead, including testing of the Dragon spacecraft’s crew capability; demonstrating the functionality of their spacesuit; maintaining life-support systems over lunar-mission durations; and completing its existing Commercial Crew tasks for NASA.
Beyond the lunar trip, Musk has larger ambitions.
In 2016, Musk unveiled his Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which is four times the size of Saturn V and stated that it could carry humans to Mars. This year, he introduced a somewhat smaller version of the ITS, which could be used to carry crew or cargo to Mars, the Moon, Earth orbit, or even point-to-point destinations on Earth. Before opening the solar system with the “BFR” (Big Frickin’ Rocket), Musk and SpaceX must prove that Falcon Heavy can perform as advertised.
What happens if…?
While technical hiccups or major failures are always possible on first flights of new launch vehicles, SpaceX faces some unprecedented challenges with a test flight from Kennedy Space Center. Unlike many of the tests on Elon Musk’s “blooper reel,” which remained out of the public eye for the most part, any failure of the Falcon Heavy will endure high public visibility on the Florida Space Coast, especially if there is damage to historic Launch Complex 39A. A catastrophic failure of Falcon Heavy could slow down some of their plans.
If Falcon Heavy succeeds on its first flight, the Space Launch System could face extra political pressure. NASA and its SLS team have experienced multiple delays as well, with its first launch gradually pushed from 2017 to potentially as late as 2020.
While Falcon Heavy carries 13,663 pounds (6,200 kilograms) less than SLS to LEO, other, more detailed comparisons have been made (here and here) to evaluate if Falcon Heavy is a “better” vehicle than the government-led rocket being assembled in Louisiana. A lot of those comparisons boil down to how you define “better.” Falcon Heavy carries less mass than SLS to LEO, Mars, or the outer planets; however, it costs less to build and launch and is designed to be reusable.
Falcon Heavy also has a dark-horse competitor in Blue Origin’s reusable New Glenn heavy-lift rocket. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has taken a tortoise-and-hare approach to the “race” for commercial space access, even to the point of decorating Blue’s rockets with tortoise symbols.
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.