Means and the Muscle: Where Does Falcon Heavy Stand Alongside the Heavylifters?

Last week’s launch of the maiden Falcon Heavy has opened a niche in the market for super-heavylift launch vehicles. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

“If you can hear me over the cheering,” intoned SpaceX’s John Insprucker in the seconds after 3:45 p.m. EST Tuesday, 6 February, “Falcon Heavy, heading to space on her test-flight. Building on the history of Saturn V-Apollo, returning Pad 39A to interplanetary missions.” He was right. Last week’s spectacular maiden voyage of the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) behemoth was properly trumpeted as the world’s newest holder of the title for most powerful operational launch vehicle in the world, as SpaceX opened a niche in the market for super-heavylift launch vehicles, capable of lofting in excess of 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg).

Yet a single test-flight does not definitively prove a system, of course, and potential clients, including the Department of Defense and other U.S. Government entities, will demand a string of successful missions before they commit their multi-billion-dollar national assets to the Falcon Heavy.

Video Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Tuesday’s mission was an astonishing triumph and left many observers, in person and via the internet, wondering if they could actually believe what their eyes were telling them. Not only did the mammoth rocket launch, and fly successfully—a remarkable feat in itself—but its twin side-mounted boosters performed synchronized, almost-to-the-second touchdowns at Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and the (midnight cherry red) icing on the cake was surely the astonishing sight of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, with the “Starman” in the driver’s seat, barreling away from Earth into heliocentric orbit.

The floodgates of potential opened Tuesday and, all of a sudden, returning to the Moon to stay, achieving human bootprints on Mars and heading further afield no longer seemed out of the realm of possibility.

Producing an estimated 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kg) of thrust at liftoff, the Falcon Heavy carries more than twice the lifting capacity of its closest competitor, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy. Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

Looking ahead, Mr. Musk’s Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services organization expects to fly several Falcon Heavy missions annually, with the heavyweight Arabsat 6A communications satellite destined to be one of its early payloads. Others include Space Test Payload (STP)-2 for the Department of Defense, slated to fly in support of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) certification process for the Heavy.

And, of course, SpaceX has two seats already paid for to fly on a Dragon capsule; a pair of private tourists to circumnavigate the Moon, as outlined last year by Mr. Musk.

However, Musk said after the launch of Falcon Heavy that, with development of their BFR moving along so quickly, SpaceX has no intention to qualify it for human spaceflight. ONLY if BRR development slows down will SpaceX reconsider human rating the Falcon Heavy.

The 27 Merlin 1D+ engines of the Falcon Heavy’s first stage ramp up to full power, ahead of Tuesday’s launch. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

With its 27 Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines punching out 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kg) of thrust at the instant of liftoff, the Falcon Heavy now eclipses United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Delta IV Heavy by a factor of two. SpaceX is now able to deliver an estimated 140,700 pounds (63,800 kg) into low-Earth orbit, 58,900 pounds (26,700 kg) to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) or 37,000 pounds (16,800 kg) to Mars.

In so doing, the Falcon Heavy fits into the category of a “super-heavylift” booster, as categorized in the 2009-published Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by former U.S. Undersecretary of the Army, Norman R. Augustine. In the review, a lifting capacity in excess of 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg) earns membership of the super-heavylift “club”.

The Falcon Heavy soars for its maiden flight off KSC pad 39A. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Contrastingly, the Delta IV Heavy—which is now relegated to second place on the list of the world’s most powerful rockets—boasts a single Aerojet Rocketdyne-built RS-68A engine on each of its three Common Booster Cores (CBCs), yielding 2.2 million pounds (1 million kg) at T-0.

Since December 2004, the Delta IV Heavy has flown nine times successfully, transporting six payloads into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as a Defense Support Program (DSP) infrared early-warning satellite and the maiden voyage of NASA’s Orion deep-space vehicle on Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1. Future missions include the Parker Solar Probe in July 2018 and roughly one NRO launch per annum thereafter.

Video Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

When stacked alongside the Falcon Heavy, it can haul up to 63,470 pounds (28,790) into low-Earth orbit, 31,350 pounds (14,220 kg) to GTO and 17,600 pounds (8,000 kg) to Mars. This establishes the Delta IV Heavy within a group of so-called “heavylift” boosters, capable of hauling between 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) and 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit.

This group also includes Europe’s Ariane 5 and Russia’s Proton-M. Even ULA’s triple-cored Vulcan Heavy, whose maiden voyage is not anticipated until the early 2020s, can deliver up to 50,000 pounds (23,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit.

But the Falcon Heavy’s lack of a cryogenic upper stage really limits what it can do for exploration across the solar system. A Falcon 9 could have launched the Roadster and had fuel enough to spare for a landing on the company’s offshore ASDS landing pad.

Additionally, as noted by JPL’s Doug Ellison on Twitter, “a recovered Falcon Heavy is out performed by the high end ULA Atlas Vs, and an expendable Falcon Heavy is probably more expensive than those Atlas Vs” (performance numbers can be found HERE).

Musk tried 3 times to cancel Falcon Heavy development. Hence the birth of the BFR; Falcon Heavy is simply a means to make a point and get the funding for BFR, not to serve a market.

But Falcon Heavy is now the only flight-proven super-heavylifter on active service today. Yet even its potential is dwarfed by several rockets from the past. Chief among them, as noted by Mr. Insprucker on Tuesday, is the gigantic Saturn V, which recorded its own maiden voyage, 50 years ago, last November.

Equipped with five F-1 engines at the base of its first stage, the Saturn V was—and still remains—the largest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status. It flew 13 times between November 1967 and May 1973, boosting nine crews of astronauts to the Moon and delivering America’s Skylab space station into low-Earth orbit on its final mission.

Launch of the first Falcon Heavy. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

Built by Rocketdyne (ancestor of today’s builder of the Delta IV Heavy’s RS-68A), the F-1 engine is still the most powerful single-nozzled liquid-fueled engine ever used in service. Although it suffered severe teething problems during its development process, including “combustion instability”, it went on to become the cornerstone for America’s drive to land a man on the Moon.

Taking into account various modifications over the years—including redesigned fuel-injector orifices and a slightly increased propellant mass flow-rate—by the time Apollo 15 launched in July 1971, the Saturn V’s maximum yield at T-0 peaked at almost 7.8 million pounds (3.5 million kg). All told, the vehicle could loft up to 310,000 pounds (140,000 kg) of payload into low-Earth orbit and up to 107,100 pounds (48,600 kg) onto a translunar trajectory, destined for the Moon.

In spite of the Falcon Heavy’s success, the title for largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status still belongs to the gigantic Saturn V. Photo Credit: NASA

Although the Saturn V was subject to several unrealized future uses, including a 500-day manned flyby of Venus and a second Skylab space station, its immense cost was a primary causal factor in its eventual cancelation. It is interesting that, as Mr. Insprucker noted during Tuesday’s Falcon Heavy launch, both rockets made use of historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

In fact, all but one of the Saturn Vs ever launched did so from the hallowed site.

Pounding the ground with 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kg) of thrust, the Falcon Heavy begins its maiden voyage of exploration. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

Other vehicles were considered in the super-heavylift capacity over the years. The Soviet Union’s ill-fated N-1 booster was launched four times between February 1969 and November 1972. All four missions failed spectacularly, but had the N-1 met with kinder fortunes its liftoff thrust of 10.2 million pounds (4.6 million kg) would have eclipsed the Saturn V and allowed to send a payload of up to 209,000 pounds (95,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit and 51,800 pounds (23,500 kg) to the Moon.

More recently, the Soviet Energia super-heavylifter flew twice, in May 1987 and November 1988, delivering the Polyus orbital-weapons prototype and the unmanned Buran shuttle into space. Canceled in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, Energia carried the potential to boost 220,000 pounds (100,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit. At liftoff, Energia’s core and quartet of Zenit strap-on boosters could generate around 7.6 million pounds (3.4 million kg).

The horizontal integration facility, within whose walls the Falcon Heavy took shape, appears to watch as the beast takes its maiden voyage. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

In his remarks after Tuesday’s launch, Mr. Musk noted that the new booster fell far short of the achievement of the Saturn V. It will also fall short of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which is expected to make its maiden voyage on Exploration Mission (EM)-1 at some point between December 2019 and June 2020.

This rocket’s combination of an RS-25-fed core stage and twin, five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) are expected to produce around 8.4 million pounds (3.8 million kg) thrust, capable of lifting 150,000 pounds (70,000 kg) to low-Earth orbit, evolvable to 290,000 pounds (130,000 kg) in subsequent SLS variants. Others, including China’s Long March 9—for which engine tests are slated to begin as early as this year, for an anticipated first launch in 2028 or beyond—exist in the pipeline.

Like synchronized ballet dancers, the two side-mounted boosters alight on Landing Zone (LZ)- 1 and 2, eight minutes after launch. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

But for now, Mr. Musk has alluded to a number of commercial customers already waiting in line for Falcon Heavy launch spots, suggesting that the newest super-heavylifter will soon be declared “operational”. And in doing so, the Heavy fills an important niche in the launch market for SpaceX.

 

 

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17 comments to Means and the Muscle: Where Does Falcon Heavy Stand Alongside the Heavylifters?

  • john hare

    I have read that the Falcon Heavy is not expected to be man rated if the BFR stays on schedule and that the tourists will ride on that one.

  • Chris

    I don’t think Doug Ellison is working off the FH block 5 numbers but earlier performance numbers used in the modeling. Also, adding a kick stage to FH payload would immediately make all of this business about FH not getting to outer solar system moot and still come in lower than Delta IV Heavy; do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. Kick stage already used for New Horizons.

    Everyone, knows that FH is primarily around to close the high end gap on commercial GTO missions with booster reuse and DoD missions per Shotwell’s testimony over the years that they would finish the program. FH still has enough throw to do interesting things with a destination to Moon, Mars and elsewhere but SpaceX has already scope limited F9/FH to focus on BFR. The could do nots of things, human rating, Raptor upper or transtage to really maximize FH potential, it just isn’t worth the money since BFR will crush that anyway. The reason BFR is needed, aside from the performance numbers and full reuse, it will really take Congress and NASA and push their noses into the mess of SLS/Orion. That is what’s needed to break the insanity. FH won’t do that.

    JPL people getting their pants in a bunch is hilarious.

  • Tracy The Troll

    I was very disappointed when Musk said that he now will concentrate on the BFR and forgo the Man rating of the FH…I was really looking forward to the Flyby of of the Moon by the two tourists…The BFR will take 10 years to launch as it will use new engines, new frame, new everything! Maybe he can do both. The sooner he can get us to the moon, the sooner we can get to Mars. He has a small window to create a major paradigm shift. Right now lots of people would pay to go to the moon. If he does not do it during this Trump Administration then he will be shut down if the Democrats win the WH. As Globalists they will absolutely not let him go anywhere without the rest of the planet in tow. That will be a cluster mess of epic proportions and we will also be dealing with Google AI in every part of ours lives.

    • Tom D Perkins

      ” The BFR will take 10 years to launch as it will use new engines, new frame, new everything! ”

      The engines have already fired slightly sub-scaled, their design assumptions and modeling software is verified correct–the engines are most likely done, or within 90% of being done. The use of composites in large structures such as air-frames is almost old hat. I think the 2nd stage vehicle will make an all up static fire by the end of 2019, and the all up system will fly payload by 2022. A great deal of the risk associated with the BFR is already “retired”.

      • Tracy The Troll

        Tom,
        I so hope you are right! And I hope that the BFS will act as a life saftey exit for the BFB as well! And because SpaceX has already gone from F9 to FH they have learned alot. What is your thought about the lifting body concept of the BFS vs the capsule? And won’t the required speeds from LEO to Super orbital be a factor of 1 or 2 higher?

  • Dave

    “Built by Rocketdyne (ancestor of today’s builder of the Delta IV Heavy’s RS-68A), the F-1 engine is still the most powerful single-nozzled liquid-fueled engine ever used in service. ”

    This is not correct. The RD-171 is the most powerful with about 1.7 million pounds of thrust at sea level. F-1 is number 2.

  • Tracy The Troll

    Everybody,

    Does this mean James was right that we will all ride on a nuclear rocket?

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5399043/NASA-set-use-nuclear-powered-rockets-reach-Mars.html

    Also does anyone else see the confusion with the Media that is trying to blame Trump for privatising the ISS…When in fact NASA wants to build a new Lunar Space Station followed by a new Mars Space Station?

    • se jones

      “…right that we will all ride on a nuclear rocket?”

      If by all you mean four government astronauts -then sure sorta maybe.

      Tracy, don’t get your space news from rags like Daily Mail, the NASA contract to BWXT was announced last
      August and NASA Marshall has been working on updating fuel element design for a few years now.
      https://tinyurl.com/y7m5axc7

      And don’t confuse the very real nuclear thermal rocket with James & Gary’s preposterous giant atomic bomb propelled spaceships built on the moon.

    • se jones

      “…Media that is trying to blame Trump for privatising(sic) the ISS”

      SpaceNews has a really good editorial on the ISS vs Moon funding issue: Op-ed | President Trump wants his moonshot without paying for it
      http://spacenews.com/president-trump-wants-his-moonshot-without-paying-for-it/

      Robert’s -history of the NASA budget- graphic is extremely revealing. Many people bemoan the big funding peak in the 1960s Apollo era, and they assume we need another huge wave of funding to do manned exploration. But…keep in mind that all the national spaceflight infrastructure and knowledge didn’t just evaporate after 1968, it’s still there. There is NO excuse for the ridiculous decades long, hideously expensive programs like SLS and (worse) Orion, it’s denial on denial on denial with a huge helping of congressional pork jobs in a few districts.

      Look: every person interested in or promoting various spaceflight projects must take the time to read, slowly and carefully, The Joint Confidence Level Paradox: A History of Denial
      https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20130012835
      https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20130012835.pdf

      This is not a fun read about shiny rocket-ships and cities in space, it’s real painful homework.
      Read it and weep.

      Tracy, your X-33 appears around pages 79 to 101.

    • se jones

      “…Media that is trying to blame Trump for privatising(sic) the ISS”

      SpaceNews has a really good editorial on the ISS vs Moon funding issue: Op-ed | President Trump wants his moonshot without paying for it
      spacenews dot com/president-trump-wants-his-moonshot-without-paying-for-it/

      Robert’s -history of the NASA budget-graphic is extremely revealing. Many people bemoan the big funding peak in the 1960s Apollo era, and they assume we must have another huge wave of funding to do manned exploration. But…keep in mind that all the national spaceflight infrastructure and knowledge didn’t just evaporate after 1968, it’s still there. There are NO excuses for the ridiculous, decades long, hideously expensive programs like SLS and (worse) Orion, it’s denial on denial on denial with a huge helping of congressional pork jobs in a few districts.

      Look: every person interested in or promoting various spaceflight projects must take the time to read, slowly and carefully, The Joint Confidence Level Paradox: A History of Denial
      You can get the 100+ page pdf here: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20130012835

      This is not a fun read about shiny rocket-ships and cities in space, it’s real painful homework.
      Read it and weep.

      Tracy, your X-33 appears around pages 79 to 101.

      • john hare

        Fairly grim reading indeed.

      • Tracy The Troll

        se jones,
        Thank you for the reference material I am reading it, only on page 10. But I need to ask a question. Isn’t government run programs ….Any government run program ALWAYS achieving less than the original design objects because simply they are initiated to produce massive amounts of cash flow for the benefit of a very few? And couldn’t one observe they are always a form of theft?

      • Tracy the Troll

        se jones,
        I completed the review of the material which I found to be not that surprising. All of the large construction projects suffered from Optimistic Bias with an added condition of incompetence dealing with such large projects…for over 200 yrs. But the Rand report showed that all during these projects planners were trying to find better estimating models. And then the one thing that they did not take credit for was the creation of SpaceX and the contracting based on results which I thought that SpaceX had completed a F1 launch by the date of this report or I missed it. Page 21 referred to the consolidation of the domestic rocket manufactures that went from 16 to 5 resulting in no competition options for pricing. SpaceX was and is the new form of government contracting isn’t? With the success of F1, F9, and FH won’t that push government contracting to design a little and fly a lot? Won’t this have to spread to the DOD as well? How long before IBM Watson type information systems converse directly with oversite and explain how Lockheed Martin lied about cost estimates relating to DOD system contracts? I thank you Se Jones for clearly showing the problem that faces all government and large industry contracting.

  • Tracy The Troll

    So just when you thought Musk was done with the FH….Now comes the Falcon Super Heavy…

    https://www.teslarati.com/elon-musk-teases-falcon-super-heavy-5-rockets-strapped-together/

    “Falcon Super Heavy (FSH). Described in brief, FSH would attach two additional side boosters to the center core of Falcon Heavy, bringing the side booster total to four. According to Musk, this would produce as much as 9 million pounds of thrust at liftoff”

    “could enable performance roughly equivalent to the Saturn V of Apollo Program fame, or ~140 metric tons to low Earth orbit.”

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