Elon Musk enjoyed the moment Tuesday night after his Falcon Heavy rocket flew into space. The world’s most powerful booster had done its job, and now everyone was staring at the spectacle of Starman in a red Tesla in space as two boosters landed near the Florida launch site.
Musk also expressed his surprise. Of the synchronized boost landings, he said, “That was epic. It was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.” And of Starman, the spacesuit mannequin, he joked, “You can tell it’s real because it looks so fake. We have much better CGI.”
But one thing was also clear in the mind of the founder of SpaceX. This was a temporary moment in SpaceX’s trajectory, and the Falcon Heavy is an intermediate point on a much longer journey. A few hours after the boosters landed, Musk said the Falcon Heavy looked a bit small. While each of the side boosters is 16 stories high and has a leg width of 60 feet, the boosters aren’t nearly enough to move humans from Earth to Mars.
“They really have to be much bigger than that,” Musk said.
Fortunately, from his perspective, the launch had confirmed the company’s ability to model rocket launches on computers. “It gives me a lot of confidence for our next architecture. It gives me confidence that BFR is really workable.”
The BFR is the Big Falcon Rocket, a super-heavy reusable rocket with 31 Raptor engines topped by a dizzyingly tall 48-meter spacecraft. Musk unveiled it in September as the launch system to take humans to Mars and open other worlds in the solar system to human activity and exploration. Perhaps a first launch could come in three or four years, he said.
Musk didn’t spend much time discussing the Falcon Heavy’s actual flight during his post-launch press conference, but he did provide a few details. The central core did not return to Earth safely because two of the three engines failed to fire during the landing. So, Musk said, slammed it into the ocean at 300 mph, threw debris at the nearby drone ship and shut down two of the boat’s engines.
But overall, the rocket performed nominally and sent the top stage into orbit. During the first 30 minutes of the flight, the upper stage inflicted two burns and sent the payload to a higher orbit on a six-hour cruise. Late Tuesday night, the upper stage would perform a third and final burn to send the Tesla into an elliptical orbit to Mars and beyond.
This coast was far from certain to be a success, as its duration was unprecedented for a SpaceX upper stage. Musk feared the avionics would be baked in the Van Allen radiation belts or the fuel from the top stage would freeze. (Update: According to Musk, the third burn went better than expected. The Tesla will pass the orbit of Mars and approach the asteroid belt.)
Despite the loss of the central core, Tuesday’s launch undoubtedly led to mission success. The Falcon Heavy had flown. It hadn’t exploded.
From an observer’s point of view, the launch itself is hard to put into words. The press site is located just over three miles from the launch pad. A wide lawn looks across the water to the pad, with speakers amplifying the countdown. This was the first flight of a 27-engine rocket. As the countdown progressed, we had every expectation of a scrub. Sure enough, in the last few seconds, an on-board computer would flag a sensor reading it didn’t like.
But then the engines started. Slowly, very slowly, the mega-rocket began to climb away from the launch tower. Those 27 engines burned so brightly that staring at the rocket for a few seconds was like looking straight at the sun. And yet we couldn’t turn away.
The space shuttle launches produced more thrust and were equally appealing to a viewer. But there is never more than one “first” rocket launch. And with the space shuttle, you might have some expectation that the rocket had a damn good chance of hitting Earth orbit. Not so with the Falcon Heavy. Even after the thundering rocket’s vibration had stopped, the vibrations did not subside. Given the uncertainty for a first launch, it was butterflies all the way up.
Now it’s real
It will take some time to process the net effect of an operational Falcon Heavy rocket on the space community. After delays upon delays, many people in the rocket industry were skeptical that this day would ever come.
But on Tuesday, SpaceX proved it could use private funds to develop a heavy-lift rocket that could put twice as much mass into orbit as any other rocket flying today. Until now, when asked about the Falcon Heavy’s potential to disrupt the commercial, space science, defense and human exploration markets, critics of the booster had a ready answer: The rocket didn’t exist and it hadn’t flown.
Now it has. This missile can hit all nine Ministry of Defense reference orbits. The cost, about $90 million, is a quarter of the cost of its proven competitor in this capacity, the Delta IV Heavy. The US Air Force is developing its certification process, so with another flight later this year, the Falcon Heavy could be ready to compete for national security missions.
The new rocket can also play a role in science missions to the outer planets. “It can launch things straight to Pluto and beyond,” Musk said Tuesday evening. “It opens up a new class of payload.”
A fixed path
Still, valid questions remain about the viability of the Falcon Heavy rocket on the market. The reality is that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has become so powerful that the Falcon Heavy is partially unnecessary. The real breakthrough on Tuesday may therefore not be so much the missile itself, but rather the paradigm it shattered. The future of heavy lift appears to be partly, if not largely, commercial. More private, reusable rockets are coming with Blue Origin’s New Glenn Booster and perhaps SpaceX’s own Big Falcon Rocket.
For those who want to do more things in space, whether it’s mining asteroids, digging lunar ice from the moon’s poles or, yes, setting foot on Mars someday, such a future seems like a lot these days. more tangible. All of these activities are based on reducing the cost of access to space, and the best way to do that is to build a huge rocket that you can use over and over again. SpaceX isn’t there yet, but its footing on this path seems solid.
Frame image by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica