Falcon Heavy: How SpaceX's Rocket Went From Elon Musk Dream to First Launch

The Falcon Heavy is about to embark on its first commercial launch. SpaceX, the exploration firm fronted by Elon Musk, is set to achieve a goal around 15 years in the making, when it first floated the idea of a rocket capable of sending up super-heavy payloads for cheap.

The launch is set to take place at 6:38 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center (the launch was pushed back once already due to weather). Falcon Heavy’s second flight will take off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and send up Lockheed Martin’s Arabsat-6A satellite to provide cellular and other services to the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The company plans to land all three cores after launch, with the two side cores returning to land together and the central core landing later on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship — ideally reaching its target this time.

It’s a breakthrough rocket that will hopefully enable more ambitious launches. It’s the most powerful in the world by far, generating over 5 million pounds of thrust to send up to 140,660 pounds to low Earth orbit. By comparison, the second-most-powerful operational rocket, the Delta IV, can only send up 49,740 pounds. Only the Saturn V, which last flew in 1973, beats the Falcon Heavy in terms of power by generating 7.6 million pounds of thrust.

For its size, the Falcon Heavy is also surprisingly economical. A single launch costs anywhere between $90 million to $150 million. That’s a fair bit pricier than the Falcon 9, which costs $67 million per launch, but buyers receive a far higher liftoff thrust to send up heavier satellites. The Delta IV, meanwhile, costs an eye-watering $350 million per launch.

Falcon Heavy Demo Mission
 Falcon Heavy

Falcon Heavy: How Did We Get Here?

Musk originally founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of sending humans to Mars and starting a colony. The company built itself up by offering private rocket launches for companies. Its first launch in 2006 was with the Falcon 1, powered by a single Merlin engine, but the first successful launch wouldn’t come until two years later.

The nine-engine Falcon 9, with a liftoff thrust of 1.7 million pounds, first launched in 2010. SpaceX completed a staggering 18 launches in 2017, five of which reused rockets that the company had successfully landed after launch. All these feats helped the company drive down costs to develop more ambitious rockets.

SpaceX first floated the idea of adding more Merlin engines to make a heavy lift rocket as far back as 2005. The rocket was first announced in April 2011 at a National Press Club conference in Washington, D.C.

“Falcon Heavy represents a huge economic advantage,” Musk said at the event. “Falcon Heavy costs about a third as much per flight as a Delta 4-Heavy but carries twice as much payload to orbit, so it’s effectively a six-fold improvement in the cost per pound to orbit.”

Some of the details were remarkably similar to the final product, like the 27 Merlin engines, the height of around 230 feet and the cost per mission of between $80 million and $125 million, which was only around $10 million lower than its final price. The Falcon Heavy exceeded its goals in other ways, like the originally announced liftoff thrust of just 3.8 million pounds.

Other details were way off base, in particular the launch date. Musk originally promised the Falcon Heavy would fly sometime in 2013. The date was then pushed back to early 2016, then late 2016, then September 2017, then November 2017. The rocket finally launched on February 6, 2018, around five years later than originally anticipated.

Tesla "Starman"
Tesla "Starman"

SpaceX used a unique payload for the rocket’s first mission: Musk’s red Tesla Roadster. The car contained a dummy kitted with SpaceX’s spacesuit in the driver’s seat, with the in-car sound system playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on loop. The dashboard has a reference to the sci-fi novel series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a “Don’t Panic” sticker recalling the advice given by the guide within the novel. It also contains a “5D quartz laser storage device” containing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book trilogy.

Musk was overcome with emotion during the launch, telling the press at a conference that he was “tripping balls,” and that the car is “just going to be out there in space for maybe millions or billions of years. Maybe discovered by some future alien race thinking what the heck, what were these guys doing? Did they worship this car? Why do they have a little car in the car? And that’ll really confuse them.”

The company didn’t stand still for long. Late last year, SpaceX was spotted gearing up for its first major Falcon Heavy mission.

While this is the second launch for the Falcon Heavy, it’s the first for the “Block 5” variant. This new iteration, which underwent its first static test fire on Friday, offers a maximum thrust of 2,550 tons, or 5.1 million pounds. This ranks around 10 percent higher than the thrust used in the February 2018 demonstration mission, where Musk explained that the rocket would create 4.7 million pounds.

Falcon Heavy: Where Does It Go From Here?

If successful, the Falcon Heavy will pave the way for a number of future missions. This includes an Inmarsat mission for its communications satellite, two United States Air Force launches covering the AFSPC-52 and STP-2, and the Viasat-3.

The company could face competition from NASA soon. The Space Launch System is set to offer 11.9 million pounds of thrust in its “Block 2” variation, blowing the Falcon Heavy out of the water. Costs have spiraled, though — while the Falcon Heavy cost around $500 million to develop and has already flown, the SLS program was projected in 2014 to cost $7 billion and launch in 2018. The SLS has yet to fly.

Although the Heavy makes for an impressive ship when compared to the competition, it could pale in comparison to what comes next from SpaceX. The Starship, announced in September 2017 under the name “BFR,” is expected to send 100 tons to low Earth orbit and generate 5,400 tons of liftoff thrust. The ship is huge, with its original version measuring 348 feet tall and 9.7 million pounds of mass.

The BFR.
The Starship.

The ship is designed to be fully reusable, with its Raptor engines fueled using liquid oxygen and methane, unlike the liquid oxygen and rocket propellant used for the Merlin engines. This use of an alternative fuel could enable voyagers to harvest fuel on other planets and set up propellant depots, which could help power trips to Mars and beyond.

It won’t fly humans to these far-flung planets, but the world’s most powerful rocket is a big stepping stone to exploring the stars.