Update February 6, 2018: To much fanfare, SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket. Two of the boosters landed as planned, but the third missed the drone ship where it was supposed to land. According to Elon Musk, the third booster ran out of propellant, preventing it from slowing on approach. It crashed into the water at 300 miles per hour.
In 2011 SpaceX, the private aerospace company headed by entrepreneur Elon Musk, announced the specs for its Falcon Heavy rocket—a powerful launch vehicle only surpassed by the Saturn V rockets that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon. After seven years of designing and tinkering, the Falcon Heavy is set for its first test launch at the Kennedy Space Center at today at 3:45 P.M. EST. A live stream of the launch is available from SpaceX via YouTube and is embedded above.
New rocket designs are tested all the time. Just last week the Japanese Space Agency used the smallest rocket ever to launch a satellite into orbit and last month a company called Rocket Lab launched the first satellites into orbit from New Zealand. But as Loren Grush at The Verge reports, the Falcon Heavy is different. Not only will the new rocket be able to shuttle loads up to 140,000 pounds into space, it’s relatively cheap, costing about $90 million per launch. That's less than third of the $350 million required to get the current most powerful rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, which carries about half the payload, into orbit.
One way SpaceX saves money is by using three reusable Falcon 9 rockets, each carrying 9 Merlin engines producing a total of 5 million pounds of thrust. After launch, the rockets are designed to land on their own to be refurbished for future use. “The difference in using a Falcon Heavy versus a Delta IV Heavy — you can buy an entire other satellite [with the savings],” Commercial Spaceflight Federation Executive Director Tommy Sanford tells Mike Wall at Space.com.
Besides commercial applications, it’s also possible the government will begin using the Falcon Heavy as well. As Kenneth Chang at The New York Times reports, its cost and payload capacity will make the Falcon Heavy suitable for launching large, heavy spy satellites that the current Falcon 9 rocket cannot handle. It will also make it a candidate for launching deep space probes for NASA.
In fact, in another story The Verge's Grush reports that there is some talk that the cheaper Falcon Heavy could substitute for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) the most powerful rocket system ever created by the space agency, which is currently under development. The SLS is designed to ferry astronauts on deep space missions to explore asteroids and eventually take humans to Mars, a goal that Elon Musk and SpaceX also share.
But getting to that point means getting beyond the first test launch. The media-savvy Musk was managing expectations for the launch during a news conference yesterday. “This is a test mission, so we don’t want to set expectations of perfection,” he said, according to Bloomberg. “I would consider it a win if it just clears the pad.”
In fact, last summer he said he would consider the launch a success if it didn’t blow up on the ground. As Chang reports, a misfire like that would take up to a year to repair. In 2016, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 exploded at Cape Canaveral, it took 12 months to get the launch site back in working order.
While the Falcon Heavy might be a game changer, it’s not the only revolutionary rocket on the drawing board. As Wall reports, NASA hopes to begin testing its SLS system in 2020 and another commercial spaceflight company, Blue Origin, headed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, also has a heavy-lift rocket called the New Glenn in development which it hopes to get into orbit in the early 2020s. Between these and other projects—including the many space tourism companies getting into the game—there’s something of a new space race going on.
“There's nothing like competition to open up opportunities,” Stanford aeronautics professor Scott Hubbard tells Wall. “Having multiple heavy lifts out there may finally — after discussing this for decades — push the space community past the inflection point where there just weren't enough launches to make it routine.”
While the Falcon Heavy launch is just a test and won't be carrying a commercial cargo, it's not empty. As Tim Stevens at CNET reports, the rocket is carrying Musk's cherry red Tesla Roadster, one of the cars his electric auto company produced between 2008 and 2012. “Driven” by a dummy named Starman and blaring David Bowie's "Space Oddity" the sports car will be launched towards Mars, traveling at seven miles per second, as illustrated by this crazy SpaceX animation. It’s not the wackiest thing SpaceX has put into orbit. The maiden flight of Musk’s Dragon capsule in 2010 carried a giant wheel of cheese, which circled the Earth twice before descending from the heavens, an homage to Monty Python.
Will Starman make it? Tune into the live stream of the launch to find out. (Update: He made it.)
Editor's Note February 6, 2018: This article has been corrected to show that the Saturn V rocket carried Apollo astronauts into space, not the Atlas V. We regret the error.