Tomorrow, at 1:30pm EST, we are hopefully going to see another milestone in modern spaceflight as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket makes its first launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Admittedly, there is no guarantee that the rocket will actually go tomorrow – especially considering the delays that have already occurred – but fingers crossed!
Since 2012, the private company SpaceX has been using its Falcon 9 rocket to launch unmanned supply missions to the International Space Station. They have also been working on lowering the costs of spaceflight by making their rocket partially reusable: in December 2015, the first stage of a Falcon 9 landed back at Cape Canaveral following a successful launch, and since then, first stages have been safely landed on 20 out of 23 attempts, and six have been re-used. A SpaceX capsule capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS is still in development; once operational, whenever that may be, it could become the first manned American spacecraft since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.
So what about the Falcon Heavy? In simplest terms, it’s three Falcon 9 first stages stacked side by side, with a second stage on top to place its payload in orbit. It will provide legroom for bigger spacecraft to be launched – spacecraft capable of travelling to the Moon, or even Mars.
The most powerful rocket currently in operation is the Delta IV Heavy, which can carry a maximum of 28.8 tonnes into low Earth orbit. The Falcon Heavy, powered by 27 Merlin engines in its lower stages, will have a maximum payload capacity of 63.8 tonnes into low Earth orbit! That’s more payload capacity than any rocket since the American Saturn V and the Soviet Energia, which last launched in 1973 and 1988 respectively. (The Saturn V moon rocket, in case you’re wondering, could carry 140 tonnes into low Earth orbit.) However, the maximum payload will be much lower if the first stage and two side boosters are all intended to be recovered – which is exactly what SpaceX is aiming to do on this first flight. And there will be cargo onboard: a Tesla Roadster, belonging to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, which is intended to be placed into orbit around the Sun, as far out as Mars.
It’s been a long wait for this machine – rocket science is a complicated business, after all. Initial hopes were that the first launch would be in 2013. Even when this first rocket was on the launchpad, the static fire test of its engines was delayed by several days – but it was certainly impressive when it went off, with a massive roar and a giant cloud of steam. Whether the rocket will successfully reach orbit remains to be seen – but then, other rockets have done so on the first try, and with all their experience with the Falcon 9, SpaceX know what they’re doing.
So, good luck to SpaceX, and here’s hoping for a successful launch!