Late Friday night, SpaceX announced with an Instagram video that it had successfully tested all three stages that will comprise its Falcon Heavy rocket, the launch vehicle slated to send humans around the moon in 2018 and launch spaceships full of humans to Mars in the decades thereafter.
“Falcon Heavy’s three first-stage cores have all complete testing at our rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas,” the company announced at 11:23 p.m. Eastern on Friday. It shared a fiery, smoky video that showed a Falcon booster firing up its 9 Merlin engines. The Falcon heavy’s three boosters will include a total of 27 engines, 9 beneath each booster:
The completed testing is one of the final steps before the Falcon Heavy will conduct its first-ever test launch in November, a debut that SpaceX founder Elon Musk is doubtful will go off without a hitch. Memorably, Musk said that the test launch has a “major pucker factor.” The booster being tested in this video will be one of the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters and was previously used in July 2016 for an ISS resupply mission.
“There’s, like, a lot that can go wrong there,” Musk said earlier this summer. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting,” he said, adding that there’s a “real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit.”
Since we’re talking about SpaceX — a company that is obsessed with reusing its technology — each of the three rocket boosters are intended to make their way back to Earth. The central booster will land on a terrestrial landing pad — named LZ-1 — at Cape Canaveral, and the two side boosters will land on floating drone ships in the ocean, as this company video, released in January 2015, shows:
In addition to sending two very wealthy and adventurous — and still unknown — people around the moon in 2018, and yes, Mars, eventually, the Falcon Heavy will also open up SpaceX’s opportunity to take astronauts to the International Space Station. Right now, there’s no way for NASA astronauts to launch from U.S. soil. Additionally, the United States has to use Russian-made rocket engines, the RD-180, if it wants to send heavy payloads into space.
SpaceX, along with competitor Blue Origin — the company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — are both working on heavy-payload rocket engines to fill this need. The Blue Origin rocket project is called New Glenn and Bezos says its engine will eliminate America’s dependence on the RD-180 engines. NASA’s working on its Space Launch System, another big effing rocket, that could also carry humans into space from American soil.
SpaceX will rightly be able to claim that they make the world’s most powerful rocket if the Falcon Heavy goes into operation before its competitors. It will be able to put a whopping 140,660 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Blue Origin’s New Glenn — maiden launch set for late 2019 — will have a payload capacity to low-Earth orbit of 99,210 pounds. The NASA SLS rocket, in its initial “Block 1” version, will be able to carry 154,324 pounds to low-Earth orbit, with additions to the rocket over time to increase payload. The first SLS mission is set for sometime in 2019.
With SpaceX, Blue Origin, and NASA all working on big new rockets, we’re very much at the dawn of a new space age.