Space X’s Falcon Heavy Mega Rocket Gets High Marks In Successful Cape Kennedy Launch

by Richard Cameron


SpaceX, the largest private rocket business in the world, today successfully launched it’s revolutionary Falcon Heavy rocket into space this afternoon from pad 39A at NASA’s Cape Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Rocket launches always have a substantial following of enthusiasts, but the Falcon Heavy launch was exceptional as these events go, because Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket is an historic advance in technology – and anything Space Exploration Technologies founder Elon Musk is involved in, captures the attention of a much wider audience than just physicists, techies and science journalists. Here is the launch from Tuesday at 1:30 PM EST:

SpaceX project managers, engineers and NASA launch personnel were all ecstatic at the success of today’s launch, but none more than Musk, who has some highly visible failures under his belt, leading up to this moment, including the fire that aborted a launch of an earlier rocket (Falcon 9) on September 1, 2016. 

The most recent in a series of rockets engineered and produced by SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy – an evolutionary refinement of SpaceX’s previous Falcon 9, is a game changer for a number of reasons. It is often compared to NASA’s Saturn V rocket which achieved historic status among rockets, by catapulting the Apollo missions into space in the 1970’s.

The comparison, aside from the remarkable power of both rockets, is imprecise. The only purpose of the Saturn V, was to launch NASA’s spacecraft and finally the Skylab mission.  But the Falcon Heavy is a beast of burden, intended as a medium for transporting satellites and cargo into space, not exclusively scientific missions. In terms of the specs, NewAtlas outlines the basics between the two:                                                      

The Falcon Heavy stands 230 ft (70 m) tall, its core has a diameter of 12 ft (3.66 m), and when fully assembled with its side boosters is 40 ft (12.2 m) wide and weighs 3,132,301 lb (1,420,788 kg). The Saturn V with its three stages in place, tops out at 363 ft (110.6 m) tall, has a diameter of 33 ft (10.1 m), and tips the scales at 6,540,000 lb (2,970,000 kg).

Both rockets’ multiple stage boosters are fueled by supercooled liquid oxygen and kerosene.  As far as raw power is concerned, the Saturn V still holds an edge, with 7,610,000 lb of thrust, compared to the Falcon Heavy’s 5,548,500 lbs. 

The major distinction between the Saturn V and the Falcon Heavy is the fact that in the past, NASA’s rockets were good for one launch and then new replacements were built for the next launch.

When SpaceX engineers conceived of their series of launch rockets, they imagineered a launch vehicle whose boosters could be recovered and re-cycled for future liftoffs. That was demonstrated today, as Falcon Heavy’s 3 boosters re-entered the atmosphere in a controlled burn and will be used in future missions. 

Relations between SpaceX and NASA have been cooperative, with NASA lending expertise in navigation and troubleshooting. Of the cooperation between the two, Musk has described it in a tweet, saying, “SpaceX could not do this without NASA. Can’t express enough appreciation.”

Space X photo of Falcon Heavy's array of rocket booster engines

As a matter of practicality, it means that SpaceX is a much cheaper date at under $100 million per flight, compared to NASA’s estimated per mission cost for their new rocket in development, the SLS of an estimated $1 Billion.  

Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s engineering school told reporters that, “It basically gives them (NASA) another tool in their toolbox for accomplishing the space community’s goals.” 

Falcon Heavy’s only competition at the present, is the United Launch Alliance’s long in the tooth, Delta IV launch rockets, which cost $435 million per liftoff.   

Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society, observes that, “Nasa is going to be saying: look, instead of waiting around for SLS, we can start putting pieces of our deep space gateway or orbiting lunar outpost in place. The question is will it be reliable enough for the government and others to put in their most valuable assets, to be worth the reduced cost?”        

Today’s launch included a noteworthy item on the payload list, Musk’s $100,000 Tesla convertible roadster

Tesla convertible roadster in payload area of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy

The other aspect of why the Falcon Heavy launch attracted an international buzz of the dimensions it did, is the broader implications of what is on SpaceX and Elon Musk’s drawing board.

Musk intends to put a spacecraft sharing much of the same technology that has so far proved successful, on the Red Planet – Mars.

Space X diagram of their planned Mars Transport interplanetary craft

Such a project has long captured the collective imagination in the modern era.  As designed, SpaceX’s Mars Transport is purposed for interplanetary travel with either or both cargo and passengers as payload.

It is by comparison to the launch rockets – a much more compact vehicle with a proposed length of 157 feet and 30 feet in diameter and an earth to space payload of 140 tons. Its BFR booster composed of 31 Raptor engines, will be fueled by liquid oxygen and supercooled methane.  The Mars Transport would be flexible in its configuration to also accommodate passenger travel, with an interior size comperable to that of an Airbus A-380 jumbo jet, and a capacity for 40 cabins, a total of from 80 to 200 passengers, common areas and cargo holds.

Today’s successful test of Falcon Heavy has neutralized many of SpaceX’s skeptics and will fuel confidence in Musk’s future plans.  

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