On July 16, 1969, the United States launched the Saturn V, the world’s largest rocket. Capable of payloads of as much as 140 tons (310,000lbs), the space vehicle was used to transport passengers beyond lower Earth orbit (LEO) and to the Moon.
The Saturn V has since retired, but a new rocket has ambitions to travel beyond our planet. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy supersedes NASA’s historic vehicle. It can send humans to space at a fraction of the cost.
Continue reading to know more about the Falcon Heavy, including specs, history, and more.
A Brief History of SpaceX
No organization is making remarkable advances in modern spaceflight technology than SpaceX. The rocketship company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk aims to make space travel more affordable, creating opportunities for deep space exploration, new cosmic discoveries, and, ultimately, colonization of Mars.
SpaceX is leading the industry in reusable parts and state-of-the-art propulsion. The company plans to achieve its goals with highly developed vehicles and parts. However, Space X hasn’t relied on government funding to pursue its scientific ambitions as it’s a privately-owned company.
A self-made entrepreneur, Elon Musk built two highly successful software companies before breaking into rocketry. When the time came to switch gears, Musk sold his companies and invested nearly $100 million in his first spaceflight vehicle, the Falcon 1. Although on paper it was nothing special, as far as rocketships go), Musk brought his rocket to the Department of Defense and contracted his first payload missions.
Space X’s first few flight attempts failed. On its fourth flight attempt, the Falcon 1 reached orbit, and its next flights brought satellites to space. With great success and an influx of funding, SpaceX designed its next (and most successful) rocket, the Falcon 9.
The company’s second vehicle would drastically change the industry. The Falcon 9 would feature reusable second-stages and spacecraft, making history in spaceflight. With its technology, SpaceX would go on to become:
- The first private company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft.
- The first private company to send and dock a spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
- The first to land an orbital-class rocket’s first stage on an ocean platform.
SpaceX was perfecting its equipment and positioned itself for its next endeavor: sending humans to space. To accomplish this, the company would need a larger rocket.
Enter Falcon Heavy.
What Is the Falcon Heavy Rocket?
Using many of the same components as its smaller sister rocket, the Falcon Heavy is bigger and more powerful. In fact, the spaceflight vehicle is so huge that its payload capacity is the third highest in human history (trailing only the Saturn V and Energia).
The rocket’s primary goal was to transport humans and payloads beyond Earth’s lower orbit. However, it would take SpaceX’s largest design nearly 5 years to make its first test launch.
At the time of Falcon Heavy’s design, SpaceX was enjoying massive success in the spaceflight market. The company had earned nearly half of its contracts worldwide in 2013, making it the industry leader. The company’s valuation stood at over $12 billion in just over 10 years. The heavy rocket was privately funded to a tune of $500 million.
However, the rocket design was so complex that estimated launch dates were continually postponed. The Falcon Heavy’s first launch date was scheduled for 2013, but complications and changes in launch location resulted in seven reschedules. Finally, in February 2018, the rocket fired into space for its first test flight.
While the center booster crashed after an engine malfunction during its return trip, the side boosters landed safely – mission success. Following this launch, the heavy rocket is scheduled for commercial and government missions.
At face value, Falcon Heavy’s design seems fairly simple. The rocket uses many of the same components as the Falcon 9 and has two side boosters taken straight from its first stage. However, because it had to carry humans into space safely, the rocketship company had to consider additional measures.
The Falcon Heavy needed to meet NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) human-rating standards to carry passengers. This required the vehicle to have a probability of a loss on ascent or descent not to exceed 1 in 500.
The rocket had to undergo intense theoretical testing to determine whether it could survive inclement conditions to and from space. As a result, it is built like a tank, achieving a structural safety margin of 40% above flight loads (well, about the 25% average). It also tripled its redundant avionics.
In addition to its incredible safety features, the Falcon Heavy has one of the highest thrust capacities on a rocket worldwide. Equipped with 27 Merlin 1D engines, the vehicle’s boosters have a liftoff thrust of 22.82 MN (Meganewtons) at sea level. But what makes these boosters unique is their reusability.
Reusable Spaceflight Parts
Since the 1970s, government space agencies have attempted to reuse spaceflight parts, but with marginal success, until SpaceX started testing in 2011. Since their first successes with reusable boosters, the technology has become synonymous with their name.
SpaceX designed the Falcon Heavy with three boosters. Each is not only reusable but also capable of automatically returning to Earth. The spaceflight company equipped its boosters with four landing legs and four retractable grid fins, allowing them to cruise safely to the ground. This massively reduces the cost of recovering and refurbishing the pieces after their descent.
On February 6, 2018, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The flight’s goal was to test the space vehicle’s ability to safely exit Earth’s lower orbit and its reusable, self-landing boosters. However, the test gained notoriety when Musk launched his personal Tesla Roadster as its payload, manned by a dummy in a spacesuit named “Spaceman.” The launch was successful, and the vehicle now orbits the sun slightly beyond Mars.
The maiden test laid to rest all doubt about the rocket’s capability. NASA also announced its Artemis Program, with intentions to return humans to the moon, shortly after Falcon Heavy’s test success of the Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight. New missions are scheduled with both commercial and government customers. Most notably, a Falcon Heavy is set to carry the first elements of the Gateway mini-station in late 2024.
Interestingly, SpaceX no longer intends to launch humans into space with the Falcon Heavy. Instead, the spaceflight company has switched its passenger focus onto its next big project (emphasis on big), a vehicle named Starship. However, the company will continue to launch heavy payloads with Falcon Heavy. With its reusability and incredible escape velocity, Falcon Heavy’s mission costs are estimated at less than $100 million.
Falcon Heavy Specs
|Total weight||1,420t/ 3,130,000lb|
|Payload (LEO)||63.8t/ 141,000lb|
|Stages||2 (plus 2 side boosters)|
|Engines||Merlin 1D, Merlin 1D Vacuum|
|Reusability||Reusable boosters, reusable second stage|
|Cost||About $500 million in development, about 100 million per launch|
|Launch Date||February 6, 2018|
What’s Next For the Falcon Heavy Rocket?
The Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful heavy rocket. With a payload capacity more than twice its closest competition (Delta IV Heavy), you can expect to see this rocket used for only the largest missions.
Looking for more on spaceflight? Check out these articles:
- SpaceX vs Virgin Galactic
- SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket
- The 10 Largest Rockets of All Time
- The Largest Rocket Ever Created by Man