SpaceX’s hot new monster rocket makes its launch debut this week, blasting off from the same pad that hoisted men to the moon a half-century ago. The Falcon Heavy won’t surpass NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket, still all-time king of the launch circuit. It won’t even approach the liftoff might of NASA’s space shuttles. But when it departs on its first test flight, as early as Tuesday, the Heavy with its three boosters and 27 engines will be the most powerful working rocket out there today, by a factor of two. Picture SpaceX’s frequent-flyer Falcon 9 and its single booster and then times that by three; the Heavy’s three first-stage boosters are strapped side by side by side. The Heavy represents serious business for the private space company founded 16 years ago by Elon Musk. With more than 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, equivalent to 18 747s jetliners, the Heavy will be capable of lifting supersize satellites into orbit and sending spacecraft to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Using another airplane analogy, SpaceX boasts a Heavy could lift a 737 into orbit, passengers, luggage and all. The company already has some Heavy customers lined up, including the US Air Force. “I can’t wait to see it fly and to see it fly again and again,” said the Southwest Research Institute’s Alan Stern. He’s the lead scientist for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which made an unprecedented flyby of Pluto and is now headed to an even smaller, icy world on the fringes of the solar system. Cape Canaveral hasn’t seen this kind of rocket mania since the last space shuttle flight in 2011. Huge crowds are expected for the afternoon launch from Kennedy Space Center. Visitor center tickets for the best up-close viewing, called “Feel the Heat” and “Closest Package,” sold out quickly. “When you’re talking about what would be the biggest and largest operational launch vehicle in the world, that adds another dimension of excitement,” said Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who used to work for SpaceX and the Obama administration.
The Heavy is capable of delivering, in one fell swoop, 140,660 pounds (63,800 kilograms) of cargo to low-Earth orbit, nearly 60,000 pounds (26,700 kilograms) to high-Earth orbit, 37,000 pounds (16,800 kilograms) to Mars, or 7,700 pounds (3,500 kilograms) to Pluto. But for this inaugural flight, the rocket will carry up Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster. In addition to SpaceX, he runs the electric car maker Tesla. “Red car for a red planet,” Musk tweeted in December, when announcing the surprise cargo. Fresh-off-the-drawing-board rockets typically carry steel or concrete blocks in place of true cargo. “That seemed extremely boring,” Musk explained. NASA officials said the Falcon Heavy is just the latest evidence of the Kennedy Space Center’s transformation into a multi-user spaceport, a turnaround after decades of space shuttles taking center stage.
A variety of rockets will be needed, besides NASA’s still-under-construction Space Launch System megarocket, as astronauts venture out into the solar system, said Kennedy’s director of center planning and development, Tom Engler. Blue Origin, led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for instance, is developing a big, reusable orbital-class rocket named New Glenn after the first American to orbit the world, John Glenn.