Still basking in the glow of the successful launch of its first reusable rocket, Elon Musk has shared a few details about the demonstration flight of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, likely to take place later this year. This long-awaited heavy-lift vehicle, consisting of three Falcon 9 cores, would immediately become the most powerful rocket in the world.
Perhaps the biggest news is that SpaceX may attempt to recover the rocket’s upper stage during launch. Composed of a single Merlin engine — a vacuum version of the nine engines used on the Falcon 9’s first stage — the rocket’s second stage carries the payload into orbit after the main engines shut down. It would be difficult to pull off such a recovery, but it would close the company’s much-desired loop of reusability by bringing back a launch vehicle’s first stage, fairing, and second stage. This would essentially allow SpaceX to recycle an entire rocket.
Can it be done? It’s not clear how the second stage, which reaches a much greater height than the first stage, would be returned to Earth. It may use a combination of the Merlin engine and parachutes, but so far the company has not specified how it will attempt such a recovery. “Little chance of success, but maybe worth a try,” Musk tweeted. He later added that the vehicle can be returned from orbit like the Dragon spacecraft, but the concern is how much weight needs to be added to the second stage for a safe landing.
Musk also reiterated that the company will conduct the demonstration launch by “late summer,” but acknowledged at a press conference Thursday evening that flying the Falcon Heavy was a secondary priority for the company. The first priority is to launch a comprehensive manifesto of commercial missions on its Falcon 9 rocket. (Honestly, after years of delay, we’d be excited to see a Falcon Heavy launch this year, whether it’s summer, winter, or fall.)
Explaining the delays, the SpaceX founder said development of the Falcon Heavy had proved more difficult than expected. “It sounded easy at first, but no, this is insanely hard,” Musk said. The company has had to redesign the central core and additional hardware for the upcoming flight, which it considered a fairly risky mission. To save money, the company plans to use two flight-proven Falcon 9 cores as side amplifiers around the center core.
As for what could launch on the Falcon Heavy, Musk is playful suggested on Twitter, “The craziest thing we can imagine!” He then went on to explain that, inspired by a friend’s suggestion and British comedy troupe Monty Python’s The Cheese Shop sketch, the 2010 Dragon spacecraft demonstration flight carried a giant wheel of cheese with it. Perhaps the Falcon Heavy will also launch some cheap edibles.
Frame image by SpaceX