SpaceX’s biggest rocket has received a thumbs-up from the United States Air Force. The Falcon Heavy, which launched CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on its maiden voyage in February, was chosen on Thursday as the vessel to launch a satellite mission in September 2020 from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The force will pay $130 million for the mission, at a higher price than most owing to the military requirements.
“SpaceX is honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission,” SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement to Ars Technica. “On behalf of all of our employees, I want to thank the Air Force for certifying Falcon Heavy, awarding us this critically important mission, and for their trust and confidence in our company. SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”
The Falcon Heavy is a key component of Musk’s mission to eventually send humans to Mars. The booster is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, with 27 Merlin engines delivering a liftoff thrust of more than five million pounds, making it the most powerful rocket in the world today. It’s capable of lifting nearly 141,000 pounds into orbit, and only the Saturn V has ever delivered a larger payload. It can deliver both satellites and the Dragon spacecraft, and it’s a step toward the BFR rocket unveiled in September 2017 capable of reaching Mars.
The Thursday announcement is a strong show of support as the Falcon Heavy has yet to take on any other mission than its first. The contract is a key mark of support for the rocket, as it faced competition from the United Launch Alliance that offered high reliability but lower prices. While the Air Force normally requires multiple launches before certifying a rocket, officials told Ars Technica that the military was altering its process.
SpaceX has four Falcon Heavy missions listed on its website. The next launch for the Falcon Heavy may be the LightSail 2 mission scheduled for no earlier than October 30, 2018.
The Falcon Heavy is about to take off in a big way.