Leaping after Eagle’s Landing: Falcon Heavy Ready to Soar
*** UPDATE @ 2/6, 19:35 PST: During the post-launch press conference, Elon Musk confirmed that the center core did not land successfully because not enough propellant remained to reignite some of its landing engines. The center core crashed into the ocean at 300 miles per hour and took out two of the droneship's engines. But all things considered, this launch has been an almost perfect accomplishment for SpaceX who spent upward of at least half a billion dollars in developing the Falcon Heavy. If any doubts remain, just look at this specutular simultaneous landing of the side boosters.***
*** UPDATE @ 2/6, 15:00 PST: Unfortunately, it looks like the center core was lost; a minor blemish on what is otherwise a very successful launch of the biggest rocket since Saturn V. ***
*** UPDATE @ 2/6, 13:05 PST: SUCCESS! After encountering weather delay (high wind) that pushed the mission to the tailend of the launch window, the Falcon Heavy successfully blasted at 12:45 PST. The first stage side cores, after decoupling from the rocket at around 2 minutes and 30 seconds after launch, successfully landed back on earth approximately 8 minutes post-launch. Still waiting words on recovery of center core. ***
On a clear blue day in late January 2018, SpaceX conducted a static fire test of its Falcon Heavy rocket. This test usually represents one of the final rehearsals for the launch of a new rocket; during this event, the rocket is fully fueled up and firmly clamped to the launch pad while all of its engines are test-fired —“It's kind of like flooring the gas pedal of a muscle car for just a few seconds with a super heavy-duty parking brake engaged.” With the success of the static fire test, the Falcon Heavy rocket, which will be capable of manned missions to the Moon or Mars, is now ready for its inaugural test flight. This maiden voyage is currently scheduled for February 6, 2018 with a 3-hour launch window that starts at 13:30 eastern time.
With the imminent launch of the biggest rocket since Saturn V—which, via the Apollo Program, took humanity to the moon—Falcon Heavy is generating a lot of excitement in the entire rocket industry. In this post, I will provide a bit of background on the development, specifications and planned first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket as well as the policy implications of Falcon Heavy’s successful launch.
Falcon Heavy’s Development and Specifications
Plans for Falcon Heavy were publicly announced by Elon Musk in April 2011. Built to be an economically-priced heavy-duty launch platform, the Falcon Heavy has always been designed as a rocket that would be capable of taking payloads onto the Moon or Mars. A supersized version of the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy shares many of its little brother’s components.
Three octaweb cores of Merlin 1D engines cluster will make up Falcon Heavy’s first stage. Each core, which would usually individually serve as the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, contains 9 Merlin 1D engines. The combined 27 Merlin engines first stage is capable of delivering 22,819 kilonewtons (5.13 million pounds) of thrust at launch, comparable to the power of eighteen 747s at full throttle. It is expected that the center core of the first stage will power down shortly after takeoff and will be rethrottled to full power after the separation of the side cores. All three cores are designed to be recoverable, with built-in grid fins (to control direction upon reentry) and retractable landing legs.
Like the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage is made up of 1 Merlin 1D vacuum engine. The engine will ignite after the complete separation of the first stage. The engine can be restarted several times to place objects in different earth orbits (LEO, GTO, and GSO). The upper stage has a total burn time of 397 seconds and generates a thrust of 934 kilonewtons (210,000 pounds) in the vacuum of space. In order to make missions to Mars commercially feasible, the upper stage will eventually need to be proven recoverable as well.
Weighing at 1,420,788 kilograms (3,125,735 pounds), the Falcon Heavy is expected to be about 70 meter (230 feet) tall with a diameter of 3.66 meters (12 feet) and a total width of 12.2 meter (40 feet). It has a delivery capability of: (i) 63,800 kilograms (140,700 pounds) to low earth orbit, (ii) 26,700 kilograms (58,900 pounds) to geosynchronous transfer orbit, (iii) 16,800 kilograms (37,000 pounds) to Mars, and (iv) 3,500 kilograms (7,700 pounds) to Pluto.
Falcon Heavy’s Demonstration Flight
Falcon Heavy is expected to conduct its inaugural test flight on February 6, 2018 from the historic Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39. As part of its primary objective, Falcon Heavy will take Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster (playing Space Oddity) with Starman wearing a SpaceX spacesuit at the helm out into an Earth-Mars Hohmann transfer orbit around the Sun. This low-energy orbit will take the Roadster as close to the Sun as the Earth and as far away from the Sun as Mars.
As part of the secondary mission, SpaceX is expected to recover all three of the Falcon Heavy’s first stage cores. To save costs, SpaceX will use two previously-flown Falcon 9 cores as a part of the first stage. The two side cores, with an earlier separation than the center core, are expected to land on SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The center core is expected to land on the SpaceX’s droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, for this inaugural flight, SpaceX is also contemplating the recovery of the upper stage as well, but this will prove to be more challenging.
Policy Implications of a Successful Launch
While Elon Musk has set the expectations very low for this demonstration flight, SpaceX is no stranger to failure, and even revels in it; rocket science is hard. While the Falcon Heavy might fail in its inaugural attempt, the success of this launch will usher in a new paradigm in deep space exploration.
Unlike its heavy-lift predecessors (such as the Saturn V, Energia, or Space Shuttle), Falcon Heavy, relying on private capital, did not use any governmental funding in its development. Hence, Falcon Heavy’s successful launch would cement and symbolize the feasibility of commercial space enterprises in this new era of space travel. Once in operation, Falcon Heavy’s payload capacity will be more than twice of the launch capability of any other rocket currently out in the market (surpassing the current leader at over 28,000 kilograms (63,000 pounds): United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket). Like all rockets, Falcon Heavy has had its shares of delays: its demonstration flight was originally set for 2013 (Musk admitted that “we were pretty naïve”). But if Tuesday’s launch is a success, such a 5-year delay isn’t so bad when compared to the many delays in NASA’s still-ongoing development of the Space Launch System (“SLS”) heavy lift vehicle, which is targeting a maiden launch of no earlier than December 2019.
Falcon Heavy also has many other advantages over government-sponsored rockets. The per-launch cost of the Falcon Heavy rocket will be much cheaper than that of SLS: NASA estimates each SLS’s launch at $1 billion whereas SpaceX markets each Falcon Heavy launch at $90 million, less than 10% of SLS’s expenses. This is largely because many components of the Falcon Heavy are designed to be recoverable and reusable. The launch cadence for Falcon Heavy will also be higher: apart from the demonstration flight, SpaceX already has two more Falcon Heavy launches planned in 2018. Meanwhile, NASA wants SLS to achieve a cadence of once per year as a “necessary component.”
While NASA’s SLS will be able to deliver more payload into Outer Space once fully developed, Falcon Heavy’s faster launch cadence and cheaper launch costs will likely make Falcon Heavy a preferred launch platform for government-related payloads as well. As such, along with many around the world, many officials and the White House are keeping a close eye on Falcon Heavy’s demonstration flight. While SLS has significant government-backing and will likely still be developed, NASA, constantly under budget constraints, might look for a cheaper alternative to deliver its own payloads to Outer Space and the Falcon Heavy might be that solution.
But, Falcon Heavy might have difficulty in building a reliable revenue stream. For starter, many private companies might not need such a heavy lift capability; SpaceX’s own success in improving the launch capability of its cheaper Falcon 9 rocket (each launch costing only $62 million) might further deteriorate the commercial demand for Falcon Heavy. Meanwhile on the government side, one of SpaceX’s biggest potential customers, NASA, might have a difficult time, even with the cost-savings, in steering contracts to Falcon Heavy from its own internally-developed rocket. However, timing might be fortuitous for SpaceX. With the National Space Council, under the Trump administration, redirecting its focus back to the Moon, and SLS’s continued delays, Falcon Heavy might prove to be the only viable launch vehicle for Moon missions in the near term (including components delivery for the construction of the Deep Space Gateway).
But either way, the success of this Falcon Heavy test flight will further cement SpaceX’s place in deep space exploration. With no public money involved in the development of Falcon Heavy, SpaceX is likely to have an easier time in enticing private investments with its valuable technologies unencumbered by intellectual property issues that arise from public money. The private funding could enable SpaceX to quicken the development of the BFR (likely an acronym for “Big Falcon Rocket” or something more mischievous…), Falcon Heavy's big brother, which is planned to have a launch capability to LEO of 150,000 kilograms (330,000 pounds).
Hence, Falcon Heavy’s demonstration flight can prove that a government-independent, privately-funded commercial rocket industry is not only feasible, but viable as well. And with this launch, the Falcon Heavy can be a strong advocate for the essential role that commercial enterprises can play in soaring the America’s space program forward from the historic Eagle’s landing.