On 16 July 1969, a towering Saturn 5 rocket sat on Pad 39A at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. At 9.32 am, the five enormous F-1 engines of its first stage ignited, expelling orange flame, dark smoke and 7.5 million pounds of thrust to lift the three astronauts of Apollo 11 into space. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon four days later.
Today, at that same launchpad, technicians working for SpaceX, Elon Musk’s upstart rocket company, are preparing for the maiden flight of what is by most measures the world’s most powerful rocket since the Saturn 5. The Falcon Heavy will be able to carry more than 140,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, or more than twice as much as current competing rockets.
Aboard the demonstration flight, which may take off in the weeks ahead, will be a whimsical, cross-promotional payload for Musk — a cherry red Roadster built by his other business, the electric carmaker Tesla. The car is expected to travel around the sun in endless ellipses that extend as far out as the orbit of Mars.
Musk said on Twitter last month, “Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing ‘Space Oddity’. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” When asked why, he replied in a tweet, “I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future.”
Some space advocates think the Falcon Heavy could offer a quicker, cheaper path for Nasa to send astronauts back to the Moon. For SpaceX, the megarocket could help the company compete in new markets like the launching of large spy satellites for the US government. If successful, “it continues SpaceX’s very impressive run of achieving launch milestones that have been viewed as very difficult”, says Carissa Christensen, chief executive of Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm that follows the space industry.
But first, the Falcon Heavy has to get off the ground. That has been a long time coming, much longer than Musk originally promised. SpaceX successfully launched 18 Falcon 9 rockets last year, a remarkable recovery from a launchpad mishap in September 2016 that destroyed a rocket and the $200m satellite on top.
After years of falling short of optimistic predictions, SpaceX seemed to fall into a consistent, accident-free flow of sending payloads to orbit. For 14 of the launches, SpaceX landed the boosters, to be reused for future flights.
The Heavy — described by SpaceX as far back as 2005 — is essentially a Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 boosters attached to the sides. That triples the horsepower of the rocket at liftoff. That approach allowed SpaceX to design a heavy-lift rocket largely by rearranging the same pieces.
“Because of the commonality between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy we’re able to spread the overhead across both vehicles,” Musk said at a news conference in 2011, “It’s able to use the same tooling, be made in the same line, and I think therefore significantly improves the probability of being able to hold to our cost numbers.”
SpaceX advertises a price tag of $90m for a Heavy launch. The modular design also cut the development costs of the rocket. “It is essentially the first time the nation has gotten a super heavy-lift vehicle at essentially zero cost to the taxpayer,” says Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s engineering school who previously worked at SpaceX.
In 2011, Musk said he expected that the Heavy would have its first flight in 2014. Now he admits that putting together the Falcon Heavy proved more daunting than he initially thought. “We were pretty naive about that,” Musk said last July. “At first, it sounds really easy. Just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be? But then everything changes. All the loads change. Aerodynamics totally change. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics.”
All of the parts of the Heavy finally arrived in Florida late last year. Since then, SpaceX has been modifying the launchpad to handle the larger rocket. In the coming days, the company is expected to conduct a critical test to light all 27 engines at once with the rocket anchored to the pad. If the test flight succeeds, SpaceX has four more Heavy launches scheduled, including one for the US air force.
Some wonder how much business exists for a rocket as big as the Heavy. “I’ve always scratched my head, why would you do this?” says Jim Cantrell, who was part of the founding team of SpaceX in 2002 but left soon afterward. He is now chief executive of Vector, which is building rockets much smaller than SpaceX.
Some suggest that Nasa could take advantage of the Falcon Heavy as a cheaper alternative to the Space Launch System it is developing to launch robotic probes and astronauts out into the solar system. Although the Nasa rocket would be larger and more powerful than the Heavy, it would fly only once every few years at a cost likely to exceed $1bn a launch.
The Trump administration has declared that sending astronauts back to the Moon is a priority and has advocated a greater role in the space programme for private companies. Its budget proposal for 2019 will be released this month.
Beyond the uncertain commercial prospects, Musk may be driven more by his long-term dreams of colonising the solar system. He has already described plans of an even larger rocket that could be used for sending people to Mars.
This year will be a busy one for SpaceX, which is aiming for more than 30 flights. It has also scheduled test flights of the Crew Dragon, the capsule it is building to carry Nasa astronauts to the International Space Station, although that date may slip again into 2019.
For the first flight of the Heavy, Musk has tamped down expectations. There is “a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit”, Musk said in his July remarks. “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.”
Courtesy The New York Times/The Independent.