SpaceX has long been making headlines for being pioneers in what some have called a privatized revolution in space flight. Although they have yet to put a human being in orbit, SpaceX’s ability to land and reuse rocket stages, as well as the Dragon capsule they employ to ferry supplies to destinations like the International Space Station, have served to dramatically reduce the costs associated with space operations. Now, they intend to set a different kind of precedent: by launching the most powerful operational rocket platform in the world.
SpaceX has already launched a whopping 15 rockets this year, with at least three more scheduled through the end of December, setting an unprecedented pace that coincides with the reduced costs associated with reusing previously launched components. After the third of those scheduled launches, SpaceX intends to set about converting the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) to support the launch of the significantly more powerful Falcon Heavy. They hope to perform a static fire test of the engine platform by mid-December, followed by an actual launch no earlier than December 29th–or at least that’s the rumor circulating around NASA. When Popular Mechanics contacted SpaceX directly to confirm these reports; they chose not to confirm nor deny the possibility of a Falcon Heavy launch within 2017.
SpaceX’s decision to keep their plans for the Falcon Heavy close to the chest makes perfect sense from a business standpoint. Converting a launch platform, conducting a static test and then executing the first ever launch of a new rocket all within the next two months is a lofty goal, even for SpaceX’s CEO and apparent visionary, Elon Musk. If SpaceX confirmed their intentions to follow through with this plan and fall short, it would be perceived as a failure, despite the odds. If, instead, they choose to keep their plans under wraps until they know for sure they can pull the launch off, the inaugural blast off of the Falcon Heavy could be another significant boost for the brand’s publicity, as well as stock prices.
This launch has been a long time in the making; SpaceX had once hoped to send the Falcon Heavy up to the stars in 2013 and then 2014, but a series of significant technological hurdles have hampered their progress. The first stage of the massive rocket is effectively three Falcon 9 first stages bundled together, each of which house nine Merlin rocket engines. The challenges of igniting and balancing what is effectively 27 extremely powerful rocket engines within the shell of a single spacecraft has proven to be an incredibly difficult undertaking, even for the history-making firm. According to NASA, they have settled on a sequential process of igniting the engines two at a time to achieve the stability and control they need.
With what is effectively three Falcon 9 rockets powering the Falcon Heavy, its payload capacity comes as no surprise: just short of three times the payload a single Falcon 9 can muster, or a whopping 140,660 pounds. To do so, the Falcon Heavy will tear itself from Earth’s orbit by unleashing some 5.13 million pounds of thrust, making it the most powerful rocket currently in operation anywhere in the world.
Although momentous, that 5.13 million pounds of thrust isn’t enough to take the title of most powerful rocket ever, as that honor remains with NASA’s massive Saturn V which boasted just shy of a ground shattering 7.9 million pounds of thrust back in the 1960s and ’70s. However, at more than a billion dollars per launch (when adjusted for inflation) the Falcon Heavy does still represent a significant improvement in cost.
NASA’s perpetually delayed Space Launch System, which will be America’s ticket to returning to orbit without having to wait outside Soviet era space complexes with our thumbs in the air, is slated to be even more powerful than either the Falcon Heavy or the Saturn V. Unfortunately it’s been met with with yet another delay hampering its first launch and so the Falcon Heavy may well hold the title for at least another year to come.
Whenever the Falcon Heavy does take to the sky, it will begin a new era in SpaceX operations that are expected to include manned flights around the moon as early as next year. It is also a linchpin in Musk’s future plans to develop an infrastructure to support interplanetary space travel between the Earth and Mars.
Images courtesy of SpaceX.