On July 16, 1969, a towering Saturn 5 rocket sat on Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At 9:32 a.m., the five enormous F-1 engines of its first stage inflamed, expelling orange flame, dark smoke and 7.5 million pounds of thrust to lift the three astronauts of Apollo 11 into space. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon four days later.
Today, at that same launchpad, technicians working for SpaceX, Elon Musk’s upstart rocket company, are preparing for the maiden flight of what is by most measures the world’s most powerful rocket since the Saturn 5. The Falcon Heavy will be able to carry more than 140,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, or more than twice as much as present competing rockets.
Aboard the demonstration flight, which may take off in the weeks ahead (sign up for The Times Space Calendar to be notified of the date), will be a whimsical, cross-promotional payload for Mr. Musk — a cherry red Roadster built by his other business, the electric carmaker Tesla. The car would travel around the sun in endless ellipses that continued as far out as Mars’ orbit.
Some space advocates think Falcon Heavy could offer a quicker, cheaper path for NASA to send astronauts back to the moon. For SpaceX in the near term, the mega-rocket could help the company compete in new markets like the launching of big spy satellites for the United States government.
If successful, “it continues SpaceX’s very impressive run of getting launch milestones that have been viewed as very difficult,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm that follows the space industry.
But first, the Falcon Heavy has to get off the ground.
That has been a long time arriving, much longer than Mr. Musk originally promised.
Turned out it was rocket science
SpaceX successfully launched 18 of its workhorse Falcon 9 rockets last year, a remarkable recovery from a launchpad disaster in September 2016 that destroyed a rocket and the $200 million satellite on top. After years of falling short of optimistic predictions, SpaceX seemed to fall into a dependable, accident-free flow of sending payloads to orbit.
For 14 of the launches, SpaceX landed the boosters, to be reused for future flights.
The Heavy — described by SpaceX as far back as 2005 — is essentially a Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 boosters attached to the sides. That triples the horsepower of the rocket at liftoff.
That approach permitted SpaceX to design a heavy-lift rocket largely by rearranging the same pieces.
“Because of the commonality between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy we’re capable to spread the overhead across both vehicles,” Mr. Musk said at a news conference in 2011. “It’s able to use the same tooling, be made in the same line, and I think therefore significantly improves the possibility of being able to hold to our cost numbers on Falcon Heavy.”
SpaceX advertises a price tag of $90 million for a Heavy launch.
The modular design also cut the development costs of the rocket.
“It is essentially the first time the nation has gotten a super heavy lift vehicle at essentially zero cost to the taxpayer,” said Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s engineering school who previously worked as a senior manager of communications and corporate projects at SpaceX.
In 2011, Mr. Musk said he expected that the Heavy would have its first flight in 2014. Now he admits that putting together the Falcon Heavy proved more daunting than he initially thought.
“We were pretty naïve about that,” Mr. Musk said in July at a conference in Washington, D.C. “At first, it sounds really simple. Just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be? But then everything changes. All the loads change. Aerodynamics totally changes. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics.”
The central core was redesigned and reinforced to handle the stresses, one of the key reasons that the Heavy is more than three years behind schedule. While the two side boosters are reused from earlier Falcon 9 launches, the core is all new, as is the second stage.
Another tricky aspect is the large number of rocket engines. A Falcon 9 booster has nine of SpaceX’s Merlin engines, each putting out 190,000 pounds of thrust. The Heavy triples that to 27 engines and a total of more than 5 million pounds of thrust.
All of the components of the Heavy finally arrived in Florida late last year. Since then, SpaceX has been modifying the launchpad to handle the larger rocket. In the coming days, the company is expected to conduct a critical test that would light all 27 engines at once with the rocket anchored to the pad.
If the test flight succeeds, SpaceX has four additional Heavy launches on its manifest, including one for the United States Air Force. SpaceX also announced last year that a Heavy would be utilized to sling two space tourists on a weeklong trip around the moon, although it has offered no further information in almost a year.
Going big in an era of rockets on a diet
Some wonder how much business exists for a rocket as big as the Heavy. “I’ve ever scratched my head, why would you do this?” said Jim Cantrell, who was part of the founding team of SpaceX in 2002 but left soon afterward. He is now chief executive of Vector, which is building rockets much smaller than SpaceX’.
With advances in electronics and miniaturization, satellites have been getting smaller and the trend among rocket start-ups — has been toward smaller and smaller rockets. (Jeffrey P. Bezos’ Blue Origin is a notable exception.)
For $1.5 million, Vector will launch a 140-pound payload, with flights beginning this year. Other new companies aiming at small payloads include Rocket Lab, which over the weekend had its first successful orbital test flight, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit.
“There’s pretty good financial and technical reasons for going smaller,” Mr. Cantrell said.
Some suggest that NASA could take benefit of the Falcon Heavy as a cheaper alternative to the Space Launch System it is developing to launch robotic probes and astronauts out into the solar system. Although the NASA rocket would be bigger and more powerful than the Heavy — in fact it would rival the Saturn 5 — it is also much more expensive and would fly only once every few years at a cost likely to exceed $1 billion a launch.
The Trump administration has declared that sending astronauts back to the moon is a priority and has advocated a greater role in the space program for private companies. Its budget proposal for 2019, which will be released next month, should include more details of what it plans to do.
Charles Miller, a former NASA official who served in the Trump administration’s transition team, thinks the agency should consider turning to cheaper, commercial alternatives like the Falcon Heavy.
“It’s the core around which I would build a near-term return-to-the-moon strategy,” Mr. Miller said.
He spearheaded a NASA-financed study in 2015 that laid out a plan that could accomplish that in five to seven years. Because the Heavy is smaller than the Space Launch System rocket, the proposed mission would be more complicated, but it would still be faster and cheaper, Mr. Miller said.
So far, support for the Space Launch System has remained strong in Congress, and Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma Congressman who has been nominated to be NASA’s next administrator, has stated he favors the program. But the first launch of the much-delayed NASA rocket, without any astronauts aboard, likely will not occur until 2019, and the first crewed flight would follow several years later.
Beyond the uncertain commercial prospects, Mr. Musk may be driven more by his long-term dreams of colonizing the solar system. He has already described plans of an even bigger rocket that could be utilized for sending people to Mars.
This year will be a busy one for SpaceX, which is aiming for more than 30 flights. It has already began in a cloud of mystery, with the launch of a highly classified payload code-named “Zuma,” which was built by the defense contractor Northrop Grumman. Soon after the launch, rumors swirled that Zuma was a failure and had already fallen out of orbit. SpaceX strongly stated that the rocket that took Zuma to space had performed without issue.
SpaceX has also scheduled test flights of the Crew Dragon, the capsule it is building to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, although that date may slip again into 2019.
For the first flight of the Heavy, Mr. Musk has tamped down expectations. There is “a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit,” Mr. Musk said in his July remarks. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”