SpaceX is about to launch the world's most powerful rocket

SpaceX is about to launch the world's most powerful rocket

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch its first Falcon Heavy rocket today. (image: Rob Pegoraro)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — If SpaceX were run by anybody other than serial entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk, its last year might have earned it the name of another Musk venture: the boring company.

Month after month, the company formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launches Falcon 9 rockets without incident. Most of these missions include their first stages flying themselves back to a landing pad or seaborne platform, a feat of routine reusability that eludes space agencies around the world.

Tuesday afternoon, however, SpaceX has something novel planned: a first launch of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket built in America since the Saturn V that sent NASA astronauts to the moon.

And because SpaceX is, in fact, run by the quirky fellow behind Tesla (TSLA), Solar City and the urban-tunneling experiment known as The Boring Company, the Falcon Heavy will loft an oddball payload: Musk’s own Tesla Roadster, with three cameras onboard to stream its trip to a solar orbit that will leave it cycling between Earth and Mars.

Heavy metal

The privately-developed Falcon Heavy stands almost 230 feet tall and weighs almost 3.1 million pounds, with a first stage that looks like the Falcon 9 in triplicate: three boosters with nine engines each. Standing Monday afternoon at Launch Complex 39A — the site of most Saturn V and space shuttle launches — the Falcon Heavy gleamed in the sun, dwarfing technicians and visitors around its base.

Powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen, this rocket is designed to send a maximum of just over 70 tons to low earth orbit, about 29 tons to the geosynchronous orbit used by communications satellites, and roughly 19 tons to Mars.

That roughly doubles the payload of the Delta IV Heavy built and launched by United Space Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT) that had a lock on the U.S. launch market before SpaceX.

The Falcon Heavy’s payload advantage will shrink if the first-stage boosters perform a powered landing for refurbishment and reuse, as is the plan for Tuesday’s launch. But SpaceX wasn’t ready Monday to say by how much.

A close-up of the Falcon Heavy rocket on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. (image: Rob Pegoraro)

Musk was, however, ready to call reusability the key to its $90 million list price for a Falcon Heavy launch, compared to $62 million for a Falcon 9. In a teleconference Monday afternoon, he called reusability a competitive advantage that would mean “game over” for competing heavy-lift rockets.

The Saturn V could lift still more, at 130 tons, and so will NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System: 77 tons in its first version and 143 tons in a “Block 2” model. But the older rocket last flew in 1973, while the future, shuttle-derived rocket now looks like it won’t fly until 2020.

A shrinking set of missions

Falcon Heavy has seen almost as many delays as the SLS — in August of 2011, SpaceX predicted its first launch would come in 2013. Then, in September 2015, it was forecast for a spring 2016 debut.

Those delays have given the Falcon 9 time to evolve into a more powerful and capable launch vehicle through a series of engine upgrades.

This steady improvement has helped the Falcon 9 and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule become NASA’s primary cargo system for the International Space Station. Either later this year or early next, the Falcon 9 also has a chance to carry the first astronauts launched from American soil since the STS-135 mission closed out the shuttle program in 2011.

(SpaceX and Boeing each won NASA contracts in 2014 to transport astronauts to the ISS and end NASA’s dependence on Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules for crew transportation — a lock-in that’s gotten increasingly expensive since 2011.)

In the teleconference, Musk said he would no longer pursue earlier plans to use the Falcon Heavy to send crewed capsules to the Moon or Mars. Instead, he said those missions would go to a much larger vehicle in development called the BFR, short for “Big Falcon Rocket.”

With many commercial satellites now within the Falcon 9’s capabilities, Ars Technica space writer Eric Berger suggested a more viable specialty for the Heavy: sending larger NASA probes to the planets.

A rough road leads to the stars

First, though, the Falcon Heavy has to lift off, clear the tower and send its second stage and four-wheeled cargo beyond Earth orbit, preferably with successful landings of all three first-stage boosters.

SpaceX’s own history offers plenty of reasons for caution. Its early, small Falcon 1 rocket failed three times in a row before reaching orbit successfully on the fourth try. In June of 2015, one Falcon 9 exploded barely two minutes after liftoff; in September of 2016, another blew up on the launch pad while being loaded with fuel, destroying a satellite that Facebook (FB) planned to use to deliver internet access across Africa.

And SpaceX’s early failures at landing Falcon 9 first stages yielded enough footage for an excellent bloopers reel.

Monday afternoon, Musk pronounced himself not “super stressed out” about the Falcon Heavy’s debut but set his expectations low.

“I would be happy if it just clears the pad and doesn’t blow the pad to smithereens,” he said during the teleconference. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another.”

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