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Falcon Heavy launch
The first SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifts off from Launch Complex 39A February 6, as seen from the Kennedy Space Center Press Site several kilometers away. (credit: J. Foust)

Falcon Heavy finally takes flight

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Nearly everyone there that day expected the launch to be scrubbed.

February 6 started out well at the Kennedy Space Center, with partly cloudy skies and forecasts calling for a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather. In a press conference the day before, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said there were no technical issues involving the Falcon Heavy. “Amazingly, it looks like we’re going to launch tomorrow,” he said at the end of the half-hour briefing.

By late morning, though, there was a complication: upper level winds that would create loads on the rocket that Musk later said were 20 percent above limits. Controllers pushed back the launch time, which was scheduled for 1:30 pm EST, by 30 minutes here and 20 minutes there, eating into the two-and-a-half-hour launch window.

“The mission seems to have gone as well as one could have hoped, with the exception of the center core,” Musk said.

By early afternoon, the winds had settled down enough for SpaceX to move ahead with the countdown, with launch now scheduled for 3:45 pm EST, or 15 minutes left before the window closed that day. That almost certainly meant that, should there be any technical glitches during the countdown, there would be no time to try again before the window closed. And, with the first launch of the largest American rocket since the Saturn V, with 27 engines in its three booster cores, something certainly would go wrong, it seemed.

The countdown, though, continued unabated. In its final minutes the reporters at the KSC Press Site gathered outside, looking in the direction of Launch Complex 39A and listening to the audio feed of launch controllers. When would the call of “Hold hold hold!” come over the loudspeakers?

It never did. All 27 Merlin engines, nine in each of the three cores, ignited as planned, and the rocket began its ascent off the pad. Seconds later, the rocket cleared the pad, no doubt causing sighs of relief at NASA who worried about the damage an explosion could do to the historic pad, which SpaceX also plans to use for future commercial crew missions.

Of course, that didn’t mean the risk for the launch itself was over. In that pre-launch press conference, Musk outlined some of the key areas of concern with this launch. “It’s not clear what would be the highest risk,” he said. “The things I think about are the relative interactions of the three core boosters.” That included, he said, unanticipated resonances during flight as well as loads as the rocket passed through the sound barrier and “Max-Q,” the maximum aerodynamics loads. The separation system to release the two side boosters has also not been tested in flight.

He said he would feel better once the second stage separated from the center booster. “Once the second stage separates from the center booster, we’re in much more known territory,” he said, with a flight environment like that of a conventional Falcon 9 flight. The exception, though, was a planned six-hour coast in Earth orbit before firing the upper stage engine one more time to send its payload beyond Earth entirely. He was concerned that passage of the stage through the Van Allen Belts could damage its electronics, or that the upper stage’s RP-1 fuel could freeze, or the liquid oxygen oxidizer might boil away.

All went well, though, as the Falcon Heavy ascended into the Florida skies. The rocket didn’t shake itself apart when it hit Mach 1, nor when it passed through Max-Q. The separation systems worked as planned, with the two side boosters then going through their series of burns to perform pinpoint, synchronized landings at the former Launch Complex 13 just down the Cape Canaveral coast from the launch site. The second stage also separated as planned and, less than a half-hour later, was in an elliptical transfer orbit around the Earth.

The only setback for SpaceX involved the attempted landing of the rocket’s central core on a drone ship in the Atlantic. The video from the ship cut out at around the landing time—a not-uncommon occurrence during landing attempts—but as the mission continued without an update from SpaceX, it seemed increasingly likely that the center booster failed to land.

Musk confirmed that at the post-launch press conference. The engines didn’t have enough of a propellant known as TEA-TEB to ignite three engines needed for the landing. “The center one lit, I believe, and the outer two did not,” he said. As a result, the stage landed about 100 meters from the ship, traveling at 500 kilometers per hour. “That’s hard.”

The missed landing resulted in some minor damage to the ship. “It was enough to take out two thrusters and shower the deck with shrapnel,” he said.

That failed landing was not weighing heavily on his mind, though, as he joked about it during the briefing. “The mission seems to have gone as well as one could have hoped, with the exception of the center core,” he said.

Falcon Heavy landings
The two Falcon Heavy side boosters prepare to land at Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral. (credit: SpaceX)

Farewell, Starman

First launches of new rockets often don’t carry a payload for a paying customer. Usually, what flies in its place is an inert “mass demonstrator,” perhaps rigged with instruments to measure the launch environment.

SpaceX, of course, does things a little differently. “Normally for a new rocket they launch a block of concrete or something like that,” Musk said. “That’s so boring.”

“I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world,” Musk said. “It’s still tripping me out.”

Instead of that chunk of concrete or mass of metal, SpaceX instead placed inside the rocket’s payload fairing a red Tesla Roadster sports car. Sitting in the driver’s seat was a mannequin, wearing a model of the spacesuit SpaceX has developed for its commercial crew program. The car, mounted on a payload adapter attached to the upper stage, also featured several other Easter eggs, from a “Don’t Panic!” sign on the dash to a Hot Wheels model of the same Roadster on top, as well as a piece of quartz provided by a group called the Arch Mission Foundation that has etched on it the Foundation trilogy of science fiction novels by Isaac Asimov.

Musk, at the pre-launch press conference, said that three cameras mounted at various angles would provide “epic views” if all went well. (He also noted the upper stage was instrumented to provide engineering data.) And he was right: not long after Falcon Heavy reached its initial elliptical orbit, those cameras started returning remarkable views of the Roadster and its mannequin, dubbed Starman. At times more than 100,000 people watched the YouTube livestream, marveling as the Earth passed by in the background from time to time, and other times was reflected off the side panels of the car.

Seeing that car in space was a little polarizing. For some, the views were simply mesmerizing. Others saw the images as demonstrations of the capabilities of humanity in general and private spaceflight in particular, while others criticized them for illustrating the excesses of capitalism, or a missed opportunity to launch more useful payloads, like cubesats or technology demonstrations. And, as you’d expect, the images launched a thousand memes across the Internet, if not more.

Musk noted they did little to adapt the car for space. “It’s literally a normal car in space. I kind of like the absurdity of that,” he said. When its batteries ran out, about 12 hours after launch, the car became inert, and Musk said they had not included anything to help people track it. (That hasn’t stopped amateur astronomers from following it as it sped away from Earth.)

“I mean, it’s kind of silly and fun, but I think silly and fun things are important,” he said after the launch. “I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world. It’s still tripping me out.”

The payload of the Falcon Heavy launch, a Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit-wearing mannequin inside, with the receding Earth in the background. (credit: SpaceX)

Falcon Heavy’s future

About six hours after launch, the second stage fired its engine for a third and final time, boosting itself, and its Roadster payload, on an escape trajectory. Musk originally reported that the stage overperformed, putting it into a heliocentric orbit that would take it well into the asteroid belt, but later analysis indicated the orbit will go only about as far from the Sun as Mars, as originally planned.

Musk posted the next day a final image from the upper stage, showing the Roadster with a crescent Earth, much smaller than in earlier images as the stage climbed out of the Earth’s gravity well once and for all.

“If we’re successful in this,” Musk said of a largely-reusable Falcon Heavy, “it is game over for all other heavy-lift rockets.”

So what’s next for Falcon Heavy? When SpaceX announced the rocket in 2011, with plans at the time for a first launch in 2013, the vehicle appeared to fill a vital role for payloads too heavy for the Falcon 9. That’s changed, though, as the Falcon 9’s performance as grown through a series of upgrades, allowing it now to launch the vast majority of commercial and government payloads seeking rides today.

Falcon Heavy, in the meantime, suffered delays. Musk and other SpaceX officials would often joke that it turned out to be harder than just sticking two side boosters onto a Falcon 9, but at the post-launch briefing Musk revealed how close the company came to ditching the vehicle entirely.

“We tried to cancel the Falcon Heavy program three times at SpaceX because it’s like, ‘Man, this is way harder than we thought,’” he said. The design ultimately required a complete redesign of the center core to handle the loads from the side boosters. The grid fins used for landing also had to be redesigned, he said, because of different aerodynamic conditions on the side boosters caused by the presence of the nose cap. “I’m guessing that our total investment was over half a billion [dollars], or more.”

Musk said he expects that, despite those difficulties, the Falcon Heavy will find a place in the market for heavy commercial and government payloads. With the ability to recover all three booster cores, a Falcon Heavy launch will only expend the upper stage, just as on a Falcon 9. (SpaceX is continuing efforts to recover the payload fairings, although Musk advised that has been harder than expected.)

That approach, he said, meant that a Falcon Heavy would not cost much more than a Falcon 9 for far greater performance: about 50 percent higher price than the Falcon 9’s list price of $62 million but with more than three times the payload to geostationary transfer orbit.

“It means we’re able to offer heavy, arguably nearing super-heavy-lift capability, for not much more than the cost of a Falcon 9,” he said. “If we’re successful in this, it is game over for all other heavy-lift rockets.”

SpaceX has at least two more Falcon Heavy launches planned for this year: one of the Arabsat 6A communications satellite and the other for the US Air Force’s Space Test Program 2 mission, which will carry a collection of payloads ranging from a NASA green propellant technology demonstration satellite to the LightSail 2 solar sail spacecraft for The Planetary Society. Musk said the first of those launches could take place in three to six months.

SpaceX offered mixed messages about the future of the Falcon Heavy for other applications. The company has backed away from plans announced less than a year ago to fly a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy, sending two paying customers on a mission around the Moon and back. SpaceX had not provided any updates on the status of that mission since the original announcement last February.

Musk, prior to the launch, said the progress the company was seeing on its next-generation launch system, known as BFR (formally expanded as Big Falcon Rocket), made putting crewed spacecraft on Falcon Heavy no longer a priority. Musk said suborbital test flights of the “spaceship” upper stage of the BFR system could start as soon as next year.

“What we decided internally was to focus our future developments on BFR,” he said. “Right now, it looks like BFR development is moving quickly and it will not be necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for crewed spaceflight.”

“It’s really a game-changing capability,” said former Pentagon official John Young, now a SpaceX adviser.

The company, though, seems to be eyeing using the Falcon Heavy for national security missions. The six-hour coast of the upper stage was intended to simulate a similar coast needed for what’s known as “direct GEO insertion,” where the upper stage places a payload directly into geostationary orbit, rather than dropping it off in a transfer orbit and letting the payload’s own thrusters raise it to GEO. Such insertions are required for some national security payloads, although they’re rarely used for commercial spacecraft.

Falcon Heavy opens the prospect of launching payloads that today can only fly on United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, a rocket several times the cost of a Falcon Heavy. A former Pentagon official now advising SpaceX argued that should prove attractive to Defense Department officials.

“It’s really a game-changing capability,” said John Young, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, in an interview prior to the launch.

He argued that the increased payload performance would attract unnamed “communities” within national security space who are interested in launching larger and heavier payloads, such as those with large apertures. More significant, though, is the cost savings, which Young predicts will only become greater as smaller variants of the Delta IV are retired in the near future, causing the Heavy version to become even more expensive as it shoulders all of its infrastructure costs.

“If I was still part of the DOD acquisition team I would be enormously excited about this chance to use the savings” for other defense needs, he said.

For the Defense Department to reap those savings, it must first certify the Falcon Heavy, a process that will require several more successful missions. “We have a number of commercial customers for Falcon Heavy, so I really don’t think it’s going to be in any way an impediment to acceptance of national security missions,” Musk said.

Whatever the markets of Falcon Heavy may be, the success of this first launch gives Musk confidence in the company’s development of the BFR. “It gives me a lot of faith for our next architecture,” he said. “It gives me confidence that BFR is really quite workable.”

“I think we can really do this a lot, and keep advancing the technology to achieve full and rapid reusability,” he added.