Elon Musk reveled in the moment on Tuesday night after his Falcon Heavy rocket flew into space. The world’s most powerful booster had done its job, and now everyone gawked at the spectacle of Starman in a red Tesla in space while twin boosters landed near the launch site in Florida.
Musk, too, expressed amazement. Of the synchronized booster landings, he said, “That was epic. It was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.” And of Starman, the spacesuited mannequin, he quipped, “You can tell it’s real because it looks so fake. We have way better CGI.”
But one thing was also clearly on the founder of SpaceX’s mind. This was a transient moment in the trajectory of SpaceX, and the Falcon Heavy is a waypoint on a much longer journey. A few hours after the boosters touched down, Musk said the Falcon Heavy seemed a little small. Even though each of the side boosters measures 16 stories tall and has a 60-foot leg span, the boosters aren’t nearly enough to move humans off of Earth and onto Mars.
“They really need to be way 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 faith for our next architecture. It gives me confidence that BFR is really quite workable.”
The BFR is the Big Falcon Rocket, a super-massive reusable rocket with 31 Raptor engines topped by a staggeringly tall 48-meter spacecraft. Musk revealed it in September as the launch system to take humans to Mars, as well as open up other worlds in the Solar System to human activity and exploration. Perhaps an initial launch could come in three or four years, he said.
Musk did not spend much time during his post-launch news conference discussing the actual flight of the Falcon Heavy, but he did provide a few details. The center core did not safely return to Earth because two of its three engines failed to light during the landing burn. So, Musk said, it slammed into the ocean at 300mph, throwing debris onto its nearby drone ship and taking out two of the boat’s engines.
But overall, the rocket performed nominally, sending the upper stage into orbit. During the first 30 minutes of flight, the upper stage performed two burns and sent the payload on a six-hour cruise toward a higher orbit. Late Tuesday night, the upper stage was to 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 was concerned that the avionics might be fried in the Van Allen radiation belts or the upper stage’s fuel might freeze. Even so, with Tuesday’s launch SpaceX had unquestionably achieved mission success. The Falcon Heavy had flown. It had not blown up.
From an observer’s standpoint, the launch itself is hard to put into words. The press site is a little more than three miles from the launchpad. A broad lawn looks across water to the pad, with loudspeakers amplifying the countdown. This was the maiden flight of a rocket with 27 engines. As the countdown proceeded, we had every expectation for a scrub. Surely, in the last few seconds, an onboard computer would flag some sensor reading it didn’t like.
But then the engines lit. Slowly, very slowly, the mega-rocket began to climb away from the launch tower. Those 27 engines burned so brightly that, for a few seconds, staring at the rocket was akin to looking directly at the Sun. And yet we could not turn away.
Space shuttle launches produced more thrust and were equally compelling to a viewer. But there is never more than one “first” launch of a rocket. And with the space shuttle, one could have some expectation that the rocket had a damn good chance of reaching orbit. Not so with the Falcon Heavy. Even after the shaking from the thundering rocket had stopped, the vibrations did not ebb inside. Given the uncertainty for a maiden launch, it was butterflies all the way up.
It will take some time to process the net effect of an operational Falcon Heavy rocket on the aerospace community. After delays upon delays, many people in the rocket business were skeptical this day would ever come.
But on Tuesday, SpaceX proved that it could use private funds to develop a heavy-lift rocket that can boost twice as much mass into orbit as any other rocket flying today. Until now, when asked about the potential of the Falcon Heavy 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 rocket can hit all of the Department of Defense’s nine reference orbits. Its cost, approximately $90 million, is one-quarter the cost of its proven competitor in this capacity, the Delta IV Heavy. The US Air Force is evolving its certification process, so with another flight later this year the Falcon Heavy may be ready to compete for national security missions.
The new rocket may play some role in science missions to the outer planets, too. “It can launch things straight to Pluto and beyond,” Musk said Tuesday night. “It opens up a new class of payload.”
Still, valid questions about the market viability of the Falcon Heavy rocket remain. The reality is that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has become so powerful that it has obviated some of the need for the Falcon Heavy. The real breakthrough on Tuesday, therefore, may not be so much the rocket itself, but rather the paradigm it shattered. The future of heavy lift appears to be partially, if not mostly, 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, be it mining asteroids, digging lunar ice from the Moon’s poles or, yes, one day setting foot on Mars, such a future seems vastly more tangible today. All of these activities are predicated on lowering the cost of access to space, and the best way to do that is to build a big freaking rocket that you can use over and over again. SpaceX isn’t there yet, but its footing on this path seems firm.