It's showtime! Falcon Heavy -- the most powerful operational rocket in the world-- is set to blast off as soon as February 6 with a three-hour launch window opening at 1:30 p.m.
It will be the biggest, brightest launch from the Kennedy Space Center since the last Space Shuttle flight. Standing an enormous 229 feet and measuring 40 feet wide, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will produce a 5.1 million pound force of thrust at lift off, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. That is more lift capacity than any U.S. launch since the last Saturn V in the 1970s, according to SpaceX.
“Aiming for first flight of Falcon Heavy on Feb. 6 from Apollo launch pad 39A at Cape Kennedy. Easy viewing from the public causeway,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted on January 28.
People will be flocking to Florida's Space Coast for the test flight. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has called the event “one of the most anticipated launches in recent history.” Tickets to watch from within a few miles of the launch, priced at $195 each, have already sold out. The viewing party features a champagne toast and a commemorative glass.
The long-awaited Falcon Heavy rocket roared to life on January 24, as SpaceX fired up the 27 Merlin engines that power the triple-booster rocket at Kennedy Space Center. In what is known as a static firing, the testing lasted just 12 seconds with the rocket clamped to keep it on the ground. It created a mountain of exhaust plumes that surrounded the facility. A loud rumbling lasted most of the firing, capped by a giant boom that rattled the Space Coast.
It is SpaceX's first new rocket since 2010. In terms of design, the Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, tripling the launch power. While one Falcon 9 has nine Merlin engines in its first booster stage, Falcon Heavy boasts 27. It's twice as large from a capacity standpoint than its closest competitor, United Launch Alliance’s (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) Delta IV Heavy.
Falcon Heavy will become twice as powerful as any rocket in operation today. It was designed to carry heavier payloads into orbit, and eventually take humans to Mars, with reusable vehicles that lower costs. SpaceX is leading the push for reusable rocket technology.
There will be a whimsical passenger on the Falcon Heavy’s inaugural test launch. The founder of the electric car company Tesla, Musk’s personal cherry red Tesla Roadster sports car will be mounted inside the Falcon Heavy’s upper faring. The rocket will attempt to give it a boost away from Earth and give the automobile enough velocity to escape the planet’s gravitational grasp. Spurring the flight on will be the music of David Bowie's Space Oddity on repeat as Falcon Heavy attempts to launch the car to a heliocentric orbit near Mars.
"I wanted the payload to be “something unusual” instead of something “extremely boring,” such as concrete or steel blocks," Musk quipped.
Falcon Heavy first went vertical in mid-December at 39A, the historic launch pad at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center that sent Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong to the moon.
The blast off promises to be spectacular, but Musk has more razzle-dazzle in store. SpaceX will attempt to land all three cores of the enormous rocket's first stage for re-use in a later launch . Two will touch down almost simultaneously on ground-based landing pads, with the center core descending shortly after to land on the autonomous drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" 200 miles east in the Atlantic. It's named after the sentient starships in legendary sci-fi author Iain M. Banks’s "The Player of Games," first published in 1988.
Since December of 2015 SpaceX has landed 20 of its Falcon 9 rockets on land or on unmanned drone ships bobbing in the ocean. But the simultaneous three-rocket landing will require rocketry maneuvers -- or wizardry -- that the world has never witnessed before.
What's the cost? Each Falcon Heavy flight is roughly $90 million, versus the $62 million price tag for a Falcon 9 launch. That compares with as much as $400 million for a Delta IV mission, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
"The Falcon Heavy launch will demonstrate, more broadly, the power of the private sector to fundamentally change the way the space industry does things," said Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida.
Multiple commercial satellite customers have already booked flights on Falcon Heavy. The U.S. Air Force will launch Space Test Program 2, a collection of experimental satellites on SpaceX's massive rocket as well. The Falcon 9 rocket was certified for national security payloads in 2015, and Falcon Heavy will need to go through a similar process before it can be used in that capacity.
Falcon Heavy brings far greater versatility to SpaceX's launch capabilities, and most importantly, the ability to launch payloads beyond Earth's orbit. The rocket is seen as a critical component for return missions to the moon-- a high priority with NASA and the Trump administration.
What's next for the irrepressible Musk? Two undisclosed paying customers have also booked a ride on the Falcon Heavy to launch them on a flight around the moon slated for late 2018.
Last September, Musk unveiled details on a brand-new rocket ship called the “BFR” — formerly called the Interplanetary Transport System — that could replace all the company’s current rockets. Musk says the reusable rocket will be able to ferry people to and from Mars, with the first test launch to the Red Planet set to take off in 2022.
It would stand 348 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter. The BFR will have 31 Raptor engines, weigh 4,400 tons and have a lift-off of 380,000 pounds-force of thrust. It would have payload capacity of around 150 tons into low-Earth orbit, compared with about 50 tons for the Falcon Heavy.
That's the future. As for now, all systems are go for Falcon Heavy to light up the Cape next Tuesday.
HOW DOES THE FALCON HEAVY MEASURE UP?
Height: 70 meters (229.6 feet)
Re-usable Cores: Three
Payload to Low Earth Orbit: 63,800kg (140,660 lb)
Payload to Mars: 16,800kg (37,040 lb)
Total width: 12.2m (39.9 ft)
Mass: 1,420,788kg (3,125,735 lb)
Total thrust at lift-off: 22,819 kilonewtons (5.13 million pounds)