Forget the Falcon Heavy’s payload and focus on where the rocket will go
Elon Musk appeared almost boyish back in April 2011 as he unveiled the Falcon Heavy rocket to a handful of reporters at the National Press Club. Still in his 30s, Musk had not yet become an international celebrity, and his efforts to transform the aerospace and automotive industries had not yet fully flowered. As such, this reveal lacked the splashy theatrics of Musk’s more recent rocket unveiling events.
Despite the pedestrian backdrop, this was quintessential Elon—sharing a vision, making bold promises, and sniping irreverently at his competition. “This is a rocket of truly huge scale,” Musk said during an unveiling of the rocket at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. “This is something America can be really proud of, a vehicle with twice the capability of the shuttle and Delta IV Heavy.”
The announcement came at a bleak moment for the US space industry. The space shuttle would make its final flight just three months later, leaving the United States without a way to get its astronauts in orbit. Launch costs for other US rockets were steadily rising. NASA’s exploration plans were muddled. America was going nowhere fast.
Amid this malaise, Musk offered hope. With a single Falcon Heavy rocket, he said, the United States could fly a crew of astronauts around the Moon. With two, it could land humans on the Moon and bring them back. NASA might return a sample of Martian rock to Earth with a single Falcon Heavy launch.
When, a reporter asked, might the Falcon Heavy be ready to fly? Musk explained that he thought SpaceX would roll out the big rocket to a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near the company’s headquarters in Southern California, in November or December of 2012. “The launch itself is more difficult to predict,” he admitted. But probably sometime the following year.
SpaceX, of course, did end up rolling the Falcon Heavy out to a launch pad in December. Of 2017.
Along the way, Musk’s competitors in the aerospace business have snickered behind his back about the oft-delayed rocket, ridiculing his ability to meet schedules. They’ve also suggested that trying to fly a booster with 27 engines will meet the same fate as the Soviet N-1 rocket. Four times, from 1969 to 1972, the Russians attempted to launch their titanic “Moon rocket,” and it failed spectacularly each time. Its 30 engines were just too many to fire, throttle, and steer at the same time.
But there is one thing the critics can’t take from Musk now. His rocket shatters an increasingly stale paradigm that has limited the ambitions of the US launch industry from the beginning. Traditionally, NASA or the military has given industry a design for a rocket and provided funds to develop, test, and then fly the booster. Musk has upended that model.
Nearly a decade ago SpaceX privately developed and launched its Falcon 1 rocket—a single core with a single engine—and delivered a payload into orbit. No private company had ever done that before. This achievement helped win SpaceX a contract from NASA to finish the Falcon 9 rocket, which is now carrying cargo to the International Space Station. Subsequently, using private investments, SpaceX has bootstrapped that Falcon 9 technology into the world’s most powerful rocket, twice over. With the Falcon Heavy, the US government will have a brand new launch capability for which it has not paid a dime.
At first blush, the Falcon Heavy’s maiden launch carries a whimsical payload—Musk’s own midnight cherry red Tesla Roadster. But far more significant is where that Roadster will go. No company has ever launched a private payload beyond geostationary orbit before. Yet Musk intends to launch the Tesla into an elliptical orbit around the Sun, a Hohmann Transfer Orbit, that will bring the vehicle near Mars.
This orbit is critical to understanding how Musk plans to sell the rocket and what its flight, after all these years of waiting, means for the aerospace industry.
A better Falcon 9
Now that the big rocket’s launch appears imminent, a pertinent question is who will use it. When Musk revealed plans for the heavy lift booster in 2011, the single-core Falcon 9 had only flown twice. In its original configuration, this rocket had a lift capacity of just 10.5 tons to low-Earth orbit. Two years later, SpaceX would fly version 1.1 of the rocket, which, thanks to improvements in the Merlin engines, had an increase in performance to 13.2 tons.
With that lift, the Falcon 9 could begin to throw smaller satellites all the way to geostationary transfer orbit. But at that point, SpaceX still needed the Falcon Heavy to launch larger commercial satellites into this higher orbit, where they could hold their position over the planet in one general location.
SpaceX kept iterating on the Falcon 9 rocket, however, changing materials, introducing the use of densified propellant to cram more fuel in its tanks, and working on the Merlin rocket engines.
In December 2015, the company flew the “Full Thrust” version of the Falcon 9 for the first time. The new rocket had the capability to perform a propulsive landing, and on its maiden flight the new booster made the company’s first safe landing by returning to the Florida coast. As eye-catching as this landing was, the new rocket’s performance was equally stunning, as SpaceX engineers had boosted its capability by more than 40 percent. The new Falcon 9 FT could lift a staggering 23 tons to low-Earth orbit.
A final version of the Falcon 9 rocket, dubbed Block 5, should debut later this year. Upgrades for this variant will focus on lowering the cost and time to refurbish a rocket from landing to launch. However, the new rocket will probably also feature another performance increase of about 10 percent, or more, in lift capacity.
Essentially, then, SpaceX will have nearly tripled the capability of the Falcon 9 rocket from 2011 to 2018, the period between the unveiling of the Falcon Heavy and its eventual flight. This means that many of the heavier payloads that once might have flown on the bigger rocket can now be accommodated by the single core Falcon 9.
A 6-ton Inmarsat communications satellite, designed for geostationary orbit, was originally scheduled as one of the Falcon Heavy's first customers. But a Falcon 9 Full Thrust, operating in an expendable mode, had enough power to deliver the satellite to its desired orbit. So for less money, and a more timely launch, the Inmarsat satellite rode a Falcon 9 rocket into space last May.