On Wednesday afternoon, SpaceX released the first photo of the actual hardware for the Falcon Heavy rocket – the intermediate stage, which connects the booster’s first and second stages – and the photo included the massive launcher’s official logo. The photo, posted on Instagram, was captioned, “Falcon Heavy interstage being prepared at the missile factory. When FH flies next year, it will be the world’s most powerful operational missile by a factor of two.”
Ars understands that the new photo doesn’t presage any major announcement about a Falcon Heavy launch — at least not yet. A company official told Ars last week that SpaceX is now targeting “early to mid” 2017 for the launch of the massive rocket, which would indeed immediately become the world’s most powerful operational booster and double the capacity of the Delta IV Heavy. .
But was the long-delayed rocket really close to flying? A photo of real hardware provides a positive sign that the rocket is indeed moving closer to the launch pad. And the fact that the Falcon Heavy platform at Launch Complex 39A in Florida is now almost ready for use also confirms that the long-promised booster will soon be able to fly.
Technically, the missile is complex. The Falcon Heavy has a first stage consisting of three Falcon 9 cores, which together have a thrust of 5 million pounds at launch from 27 Merlin engines. Some critics of the rocket have said that because of this complexity they don’t expect it to ever fly and have suggested that any booster that relies on 27 engines to work together will be too unwieldy to rely on for consistent launches. (These fears are probably fueled by memories of the unsuccessful Soviet N1 booster, which used 30 engines in its first stage and failed on all four launches between 1969 and 1972.)
A moon rocket?
Nevertheless, if SpaceX succeeds with the Falcon Heavy, it has the potential to disrupt the heavy-lift launch market. A mid-2017 launch would bring the Falcon Heavy onto the scene before NASA can launch its own heavy rocket, the Space Launch System, in late 2018. 70 tons to 54, it will also have launch costs about 10 times that.
A 2017 launch would also come as the Trump administration reviews NASA’s existing exploration plans and, most likely, reconsiders the moon as a destination for humans rather than Mars. It’s worth noting that one of the Trump-appointed NASA transition team members, Charles Miller, has already led an extensive study of lunar exploration that relies heavily on the Falcon Heavy vehicle. In that report, Miller and his team found that the SpaceX rocket provided an “excellent economic approach” for delivering payloads to lunar orbit.
But first the Falcon Heavy has to fly. SpaceX just teased the spaceflight community with the very real possibility that this could happen next year.