SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket, has just made history by carrying out its first-ever commercial launch, proving that the kind of cost-effective heavy launches needed to widely commercialize space are well within humanity’s grasp.
“Falcon Heavy is headed to space,” declared John Insprucker, SpaceX’s principal engineer, during the Thursday launch. “Stage 2 looking good with a nominal trajectory.”
Three minutes into the flight, the center core successfully powered down and the main engine detached. From there, it was essentially like any other Falcon 9 mission, except for the core recovery process. Two of the side boosters successfully executed a controlled burn to slow their entry and touch down on their twin landing pads. Most impressively, the center core was also successfully recovered by the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship, the first time this has happened. The feed cut out dramatically from its perch 500 nautical miles off the coast of Florida. You can watch the full landing in the video below.
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Capable of 5 million pounds of thrust, the Falcon Heavy can send up to 140,660 pounds to low Earth orbit, a nearly three-fold increase on the second-most powerful operational rocket, the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV. Its first successful commercial flight sent Lockheed Martin’s Arabsat-6A telecommunications satellites to roughly 1,000 miles above the Earth’s surface to beam satellite communications down to the Middle East and Africa.
“Launch is hard, and Falcon Heavy is no exception. We are essentially counting down three rockets simultaneously,” Insprucker noted in the build-up to the launch. It was, after all, the Arabsat mission’s second attempt, after heavy winds on Wednesday prompted a postponement.
What Falcon Heavy’s Success Means
The ramifications of SpaceX’s accomplishment will spread far beyond clearer signals for telecoms customers in the Arab world. While the Falcon Heavy rocket system has already flown once — the mostly successful demonstration flight in February 2018 sent the now internet-famous Starman and some other Easter eggs careening through the solar system — this latest mission proves that SpaceX has now found its “workhorse,” the historically powerful but (relatively) cost-effective rocket humanity will need if we’re going to not only send people to space, but also send all the stuff we’re going to need to survive once we get there.
Falcon Heavy Arabsat-6A Mission
Falcon Heavy’s first commercial launch took off from the Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida right at the beginning of the launch window that opened 6:35 p.m. Eastern on Thursday. Each part of the mission went smoothly.
Several improvements were necessary to get the Falcon Heavy to this point. The new “Block 5” variant added about 10 percent more thrust than the version of the Falcon Heavy that sent Starman to space last year. This latest version of the Falcon Heavy conducted its first static hop test only last week, paving the way for tonight’s launch as soon as the weather cleared.
The Falcon Heavy’s role in future space exploration efforts has been hyped by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk since 2011, who has chiefly touted the rocket’s impressive economics as its main selling point. Its launch costs are supposed to top out at around $150 million, less than half the cost of a Delta IV launch. But the Falcon Heavy also has twice the payload capability, leading to what is “effectively a six-fold improvement in the cost per pound to orbit,” as Musk explained when it was first announced at a 2011 National Press Club conference in Washington, DC.
The Falcon Heavy already has some competition. NASA’s Space Launch System will be the most powerful rocket the agency has ever built, and will offer 11.9 million pounds of thrust in its “Block 2” variation, twice that of the Falcon Heavy. But it has also proved to be something of a boondoggle. The Falcon Heavy was developed for only $500 million and has already flown multiple times, including now, in commercial launches. The SLS program was projected in 2014 to cost $7 billion and launch in 2018, but it still hasn’t flown.
What’s Next for the Falcon Heavy
In the shorter term, Falcon Heavy’s accomplishment means that commercial and government entities alike can begin to send much, much, heavier stuff to space.
The United States Air Force has already awarded SpaceX a $130 million contract to carry out the AFSPC-52 launch, a satellite that will support the Space and Missile Systems Center in a classified capacity at some point in 2020.
There will certainly be more, larger commercial missions to send further satellites into space, including a mission to send the British Telecom Inmarsat’s communications satellite into space, and a series of launches for the fleet operator Viasat.
In other words, SpaceX’s workhorse is just getting started.