Tuesday February 6 saw the maiden launch of Falcon Heavy, the newest offering from Elon Musk’s SpaceX project. With Musk’s own Tesla roadster being launched into orbit around the Sun, the highly-anticipated launch will set a new bar for heavy-lift vehicles in commercial space flight.
As the name suggests, the Falcon Heavy is a rocket designed with heavy lifting in mind. The rocket consists of two outer Falcon 9 rocket cores, and an inner adapted Falcon 9, all operating with Merlin engines. The partially reusable vehicle therefore has a total of 27 engines which provide a total of 23,000 kilo-newtons in thrust. This is more engines and twice as much thrust as its nearest rival, the Delta IV Heavy. The maximum low earth orbit payload is 63,800 kilograms, or a little over 10 adult elephants.
The Falcon Heavy is also economically notable, as the launch cost is at minimum $90 million. By comparison, the launch cost of the Delta IV Heavy is an estimated $435 million. The reduced launch cost arises from SpaceX’s commitment to re-usability. In fact, two of the component Falcon 9 rockets have already been space-tested, having completed missions in May and August of 2016 respectively. If the entire Falcon Heavy project goes according to plan, these two outer early-stage boosters will return to Earth at Cape Canaveral, while the third central booster will later be retrieved from the Atlantic by SpaceX’s drone ships.
This has interesting implications for the commercial space flight industry. SpaceX first announced the Falcon Heavy in 2011, and had anticipated equal demand for the Heavy as for the smaller Falcon 9. However, accounting for upgrades to the Falcon 9 and changing markets, it’s now expected that the smaller rocket will fly two to three times more frequently than the Heavy. Another factor is the progress being made in SpaceX’s own BFR program – a rocket which will eventually replace the Falcon rockets, and play a key role in Musk’s desired Mars landings and colonization. NASA’s planned heavy-lifting SLS rockets will also lessen demand for the Falcon Heavy, and will join the race to Mars, following their maiden flight which is expected no earlier than 2019.
As for what the future holds for the Heavy, a successful launch will mean more flights for the vehicle. Both the US Air Force, and private companies have expressed interest in using the Heavy for satellite launches. Unsuccessful launches do some damage. Following an explosion of a Falcon 9 in 2016, the launch pad used was out of commission for nearly a year. The Heavy, as a much more powerful rocket, has the potential to cause more destruction again.
What’s also at risk is the reputation of the company. With a rocket as ambitious as the Heavy, a failed launch could have serious implications for SpaceX commercially. Aware of the anticipation surrounding the launch, Musk has been careful to lower expectations. “I would consider it a win if it just clears the pad”, he told reporters on Monday the 5th. Fortunately the rocket did indeed clear the pad, so can certainly be considered a win.