A spectacular spaceflightThe Falcon Heavy’s successful flight is another vindication for Elon Musk
And another headache for SpaceX’s competitors
IT WAS not the most powerful launch ever seen at the Kennedy Space Centre’s Pad 39A; almost half a century ago the Apollo programme’s mighty Saturn V made use of it. But if the Falcon Heavy that took off from 39A on February 6th could boast only half the thrust of those bygone giants, its successful maiden voyage still proved it the most powerful rocket in the world today, as well as the most technologically advanced.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, the firm which built the Falcon Heavy, had been frank about the possibility that the launch might fail, possibly spectacularly. The prospect of fireworks helped to entice the biggest crowd of spectators at Cape Canaveral since the heyday of the Space Shuttle, and an audience of half a million to a live webcast.
Get our daily newsletter
Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor's Picks.
After a delay caused by strong winds the assembled spectators witnessed a balletic display of technological prowess. Most rockets are one-use wonders, all their components falling into the sea or burning up in the atmosphere once their payloads are in orbit. SpaceX, though, has pioneered the idea of flying rocket stages back to Earth, ready to be re-used. Recovering one rocket is impressive enough. The Falcon Heavy is made up of three individual boosters strapped together, and SpaceX had said it would try to recover all of them at once.
Sure enough, shortly after the Falcon Heavy roared off into the sky, two of its boosters reappeared, their landings just a stone’s throw from the launch pad almost perfectly synchronised. The rocket’s central booster, though, did not manage its own landing, which was to have been on a robotic landing ship out to sea.
That was a small spot on an otherwise spectacular success. In a nice bit of cross-promotion, the cargo for the flight was a sports car made by Tesla, Mr Musk’s electric-car firm. SpaceX has plans to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, so the car was occupied by a mannequin modelling the firm’s newly developed spacesuit. After it has orbited the Earth for about five hours the second stage of the Falcon, to which it is still attached, will fire up for a final time and send it out into the solar system. It will orbit the sun between Earth and Mars for the next few million years, unless some future entrepreneur with an eye for good publicity decides to go out and bring it back.
The Falcon Heavy’s performance was about more than just marketing. Its success is another vindication of Mr Musk’s policy of producing modular components in volume with the aim of building a fleet of cheap, reusable spacecraft. The Falcon Heavy uses three boosters that are derived from the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s existing rocket, each of which in turn is driven by nine identical Merlin engines. Its two side boosters had both flown before.
The Falcon Heavy’s development stands in stark contrast to NASA’s own heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). When the SLS was unveiled in 2011, SpaceX was still a start-up that had yet to launch a satellite into geosynchronous orbit. In 2017, SpaceX completed 18 missions, recovered 14 boosters, and sent five of them back into space. The SLS, by contrast, uses engines originally designed in the 1960s and left over from the Space Shuttle programme. It is designed to preserve existing space-industry jobs as much as it is to fly cargo into orbit. Its maiden voyage is not expected until 2020.
The day before the launch, Mr Musk had said that success would mean “game over” for other launch providers. SpaceX’s mastery of reusability means its launch prices are far lower than those of its competitors. The $90m price tag of a Falcon Heavy launch is about a quarter the price of the next most powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, which is produced by a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing—and which can haul only half as much cargo into orbit. And it is a tenth of what a single launch of the SLS is expected to cost.
Future SpaceX rockets will be bigger still. On Monday Mr Musk hinted at the possibility of a Falcon Super Heavy, comprising five boosters and 45 engines. It is less clear how big the market for such beefy rockets really is: the Delta IV Heavy has launched just nine times since its maiden flight in 2004. If the SLS were to be cancelled, though, being able to sell NASA such beasts for missions to the Moon might be a nice earner.
Domination of the rocket-launch market is, for Mr Musk, only one leg on the journey to his eventual goal: the colonisation of Mars. SpaceX is already developing a gargantuan vehicle called the Big Fucking Rocket (BFR), which it says will replace all of the firm’s existing rockets and whose lifting power is necessary to realise Mr Musk’s Martian dreams. If it does fly (and its maiden launch is pencilled in for the early 2020s) it will be, by far, the most powerful rocket ever built—yet, says Mr Musk, even cheaper than a Falcon 9. Hubris? Perhaps. But Mr Musk has confounded his critics time and again. After all, when SpaceX was founded in 2002, few would have predicted it successfully using the world’s most powerful rocket to send an electric sports car piloted by an artificial astronaut out into the solar system.