Falcon Heavy to Take Center Stage in SpaceX’s Future Plans

The Falcon Heavy is a direct outgrowth of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which—despite a much publicised anomaly during its CRS-1 launch in October—has performed admirably and has never failed to complete its primary mission. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studio

“Flight computers now in control of the vehicle…”

It is 2013. At first glance, the rocket about to fly from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California looks strangely familiar, bearing some hallmarks of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, juxtaposed with a size and bulk more in keeping with United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. It stands 227 feet tall and across the breadth of its trio of first-stage “cores” it measures 38 feet wide. Weighing 1,400 tons at liftoff, it can insert 120,000 pounds of payload into low-Earth orbit and propel as much as 26,000 pounds to higher geostationary altitudes. Taking into account its low-Earth orbit mandate, it falls into a category of rockets classed by NASA as “super-heavy-lift.” Its name: the Falcon Heavy.

“Standing by for the propellant tanks to flight pressure…First and second stages are pressing to their flight positions…”


The Merlin-1D burns hot and hard at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, in June 2012. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Developed under the auspices of Elon Musk’s SpaceX organisation, the new booster is a direct outgrowth of the Falcon 9, which has to date despatched a pair of Dragon cargo ships toward the International Space Station. Like the Falcon 9, the Heavy boasts nine Merlin engines on its first stage. Yet the similarities stop there. Whereas the current Falcon 9 is powered by Merlin-1C engines, the Heavy will utilise the upgraded Merlin-1D, which underwent a full-flight-duration test-firing at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, in June 2012. Moreover, with two additional strap-on cores—each of which is also powered by nine Merlin-1Ds—the Heavy carries tremendous potential to execute missions into Earth orbit…and beyond.

…T-minus 30 seconds…”

The Merlin-1D engine is fed by refined, rocket-grade kerosene (known as ‘RP-1’) and liquid oxygen and has a propulsive yield of over 1.1 million pounds at liftoff, effectively producing a 16-percent thrust increase at sea level over the Merlin-1C. It is also capable of throttling from 100 percent to 70 percent of rated performance during flight. Moreover, with an advertised 160:1 thrust-to-weight ratio, it promises to be one of the most efficient rocket engines ever built. In its first incarnation, the engine will replace the Merlin-1C on the Falcon 9—with a first launch in this new configuration anticipated sometime next year—but is expected to enter service as a Falcon Heavy powerplant at around the same time. In May 2011, Musk declared his intent for the first Falcon Heavy hardware to arrive at Vandenberg by the end of 2012, “with liftoff to follow soon thereafter” and added that “first launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014.”

“…T-minus 15 seconds…”

Concurrently, the Falcon 9 will also see its first use of the Merlin-1D engine. Present planning suggests that Flight 6 of the rocket—scheduled to launch next year, carrying a Canadian weather research and communications satellite into a highly elliptical low-Earth orbit—will be the first mission to utilise a full complement of Merlin-1Ds. Musk’s excitement for the new engine is evident. “This is another milestone in our efforts to push the boundaries of space technology,” he said earlier in the year. “With the Merlin-1D powering the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, SpaceX will be capable of carrying a full range of payloads to orbit.” The nature of those “payloads” whets the appetite, for on paper the Heavy is reportedly 50 percent more powerful than the Delta IV Heavy—currently the most powerful US launch vehicle in active service—and only 50 percent less powerful than the Saturn V, which still retains first place as the most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status in human history.

Displaying a handful of its Merlin-1C engines, this view of the Falcon 9 rocket during pre-flight processing offers an impression of what a third of the immense Falcon Heavy will look like. Photo Credit: SpaceX

“…Ten, nine, eight…”

Already, SpaceX is progressing toward making both the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy fully reusable and capable of returning to their launch site under their own power for refurbishment and reuse. In time, Musk hopes that the vehicles and the new engine itself will offer a more reliable and flexible launch architecture, which could reduce the cost of delivering a pound of payload into low-Earth orbit to less than a thousand dollars. In fact, the Heavy received its first firm commercial booking last May, when Intelsat contracted with SpaceX to launch a major telecommunications satellite into geostationary orbit in 2015.

“…Seven, six, five…”

At the time of the Intelsat booking, Musk was unworried by the relative paucity of contracts for the Heavy, although October’s hairy Falcon 9 ascent to send the second Dragon to the International Space Station has inevitably given cause for concern. A fuel dome above one of the first-stage engines ruptured and, although the engine itself did not explode, the incident caused a pressure loss and enforced an automatic shutdown. This required the Merlin’s eight siblings to burn for longer to compensate for the thrust shortfall and demonstrated an advertised capability of the Falcon that it can recover from “engine-out” contingencies and still complete its primary mission. This is a capability which will serve the Heavy well on its own ambitious plate of future flights.

“…Four, three, two…”

At three seconds, a sheet-like flame flares out from the base of the Heavy. The Merlin-1D engines of all three cores will ignite, but until the propellant is expended in the strap-on boosters, the central core is expected to use little or none of its own load. The Heavy benefits from a unique “propellant crossfeed” mechanism, whereby fuel and oxidiser is fed to power most of the engines on the central core until the strap-on boosters are almost empty and close to burn-out and separation. In essence, this means that the central core can operate a full power throughout the opening minutes of the ascent and still be left with a full propellant load—as opposed to a partial load—after the strap-on boosters are gone. After the separation of the boosters, the first stage will continue the climb towards orbit under the impulse of its nine Merlin-1Ds. The Heavy’s second stage boasts one “vacuum” version of the Merlin-1D, which will insert the primary payload into orbit. On 30 September 2012, SpaceX successfully tested the ‘1D-Vac’ at its McGregor facility and Musk tweeted the news: “Now test-firing our most advanced engine, the Merlin-1D-Vac.”


Musk expects the Heavy to eventually operate from both Vandenberg’s SLC-4E and the Kennedy Space Center’s Complex 39, with perhaps ten launches per year of the new rocket. The nature of its missions—aside from launching Intelsats—are driven by Musk’s claim that it can ferry more payload to escape velocity than any other vehicle, save the Saturn V. He has made no secret of the fact that he intends to support human expeditions to Mars within the next two decades and just last year NASA’s Ames Research Center developed a concept for a low-cost mission to the Red Planet involving the Heavy and an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft, to be launched as early as 2018. This “Red Dragon” would drill into Mars’ soil in an effort to find the molecular bases for life.

Propelled by its three “cores,” the Falcon Heavy will cement its credentials as the most powerful rocket in current operational status, overtaking United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. Image Credit: SpaceX

In spite of its recent woes, the Falcon 9 and the Merlin engine have both amply demonstrated impressive capabilities, successfully delivering primary payloads into orbit and also delivering on pledges that they can recover from in-flight failures to still complete their primary missions. When one looks back at the history of SpaceX itself—founded only a decade ago, yet now bound into a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA to supply the greatest engineering endeavour in human history—it is hard not to be left in awe. Musk is only a man, and SpaceX is only a company, and many other start-ups and plans and proposals in the past have failed. Yet there is something about Musk’s conviction that is both appealing and riveting. If SpaceX can recover from its October mishap and fly a near-perfect CRS-2 mission to the space station in March, then trial the Merlin-1D engine on a real mission a few months later, then launch the Heavy before the end of next year, it will silence many of its critics.

“…and Liftoff of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle…”

Let the journey begin.


  1. I don’t fault this article for accurately reporting what SpaceX is claiming for Falcon Heavy’s performance. Neither am I unimpressed by the associated 120,000 lbm = 54.4 mt of initial mass in low Earth orbit (IMLEO) to be delivered by Falcon Heavy. But a Saturn V could deliver over 140 mt IMLEO. In terms of this performance metric, Falcon Heavy is hoped to deliver only 39% of what a Saturn V actually achieved; not the 50% claimed by SpaceX in this article.

    It is possible SpaceX is equating “power” to a metric other than IMLEO. One such alternative metric is thrust at liftoff. But the amount of “smoke and fire” created by a rocket at liftoff is superficial and misleading. The bottom line in measuring a rocket’s performance is IMLEO.

  2. Taking a different tact.

    This is all supposed to be happening in 2013? After the “incident” that occurred on CRS-1 the current version of the Falcon 9 is on stand down until no earlier than March 2013. So in less than nine months SpaceX will:

    – Resolve whatever (at this point still unknown) issues with the Merlin-1C.
    – Certify the Merlin-1D (which is based on the now suspect Merlin-1D.
    – Fly the Falcon v1.1 (using the Merlin-1D.
    – Certify and fly the Falcon Heavy (a three barrel version of the Falcon 9- or is it Falcon 9 v1.1-using Merlin-1D engines.

    Does anybody here really believe that is going to happen?

    • Sorry for the typos.

      That should have read as follows (never try to write a post at the end of a busy day):

      This is all supposed to be happening in 2013? After the “incident” that occurred on CRS-1 the current version of the Falcon 9 is on stand down until no earlier than March 2013. So in less than nine months SpaceX will:
      – Resolve whatever (at this point still unknown) issues with the Merlin-1C.
      – Certify the Merlin-1D (which is based on the now suspect Merlin-1C).
      – Fly the Falcon v1.1 (using the Merlin-1D).
      – Certify and fly the Falcon Heavy (a three barrel version of the Falcon 9- or is it Falcon 9 v1.1-using Merlin-1D engines).
      Does anybody here really believe that is going to happen?

      • I’m skeptical of such an aggressive timeline, given SpaceX’s history of delivering on-time much less than promised, like someone whose eyes are too big for their stomach.

      • An update is in order; the next Falcon9/Dragon is now set to fly on Mar 1st, with Musk and NASA satisfied that the problems encountered last time have bee addressed and fixed.
        The Merlin 1D engines have undergone a full duration hot fire, and have flown three times in the Grasshopper programme so far; no. four, I expect due soon.

        Falcon 9 Heavy , if the above works out, would be feasible by end of 2013/early 2014. Meanwhile the contracts accumulate with at least 50 missions outside NASA already booked

        • Hi Michael,
          Thanks for the input, you must have missed the articles we ran already ran on Grasshopper as well as the possible future of the FH (we don’t write articles stating that something is a success before it ever flies – sorry). However, given that you’re responding to an article about the Falcon Heavy – perhaps you didn’t miss the article after all. AmericaSpace focuses on actual events & not on what company leaders state will or won’t happen.
          To date, SpaceX has only launched four F9 rockets & no FH rockets.
          Contracts can be signed with far more ease than actually launching rockets & while SpaceX might have hefty a manifest on the F9 – it has yet to launch any flights that are not related to NASA’s COTS/CRS missions.
          Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

  3. Everybody needs a goal to shoot at. There is a difference between that goal and the reality of when it is ready to launch. It doesn’t matter if they meet the specific deadlines. What matters is that the thing gets done. No other commercial entity has come close to doing what SpaceX has accomplished. They developed Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon (three separate space vehicles) in a few years. They have a shot repatriating manned space flight capability to the US. They are developing the first rocket that gives a chance at the Moon, Mars and beyond for a price that we might be able to afford in this austere budget era. I applaud them for being a little cautious in launching not too soon. Good luck SpaceX and G-d Speed.

    • If there are future similar delays in the SLS schedule, I will look forward to your similar supportive statements in its regard.

  4. I prefer to be supportive, rather than pessimistic. Remember that SpaceX has made dramatic strides forward in the last couple of years; schedule delays were and are inevitable in a new test programme, but they will mean very little in the longer term. Some observers seem to forget that the 7 October anomaly still managed to successfully deliver Dragon to the ISS. SpaceX has already delivered on several of its fundamental CRS pledges. Orbital Sciences, on the other hand, has a far longer and more illustrious history and yet hasn’t even test-launched its Antares vehicle.

    • As per above:

      If there are future similar delays in the SLS schedule, I will look forward to your similar supportive statements in its regard.

  5. Dudes,
    As pointed out by Ben, there’s no possible universe in which the shutdown of an engine during last fall’s launch matters at all. For one, it happened at least twice with the Saturn program, and it reflects a good design philosophy. You’re never going to have 100% reliability of any given part, so you design around the inevitable failures rather than just hoping that people won’t die too often. If anything, this should be a fist-pumping vindication for SpaceX. They’re doing things right and this kind of thing has no effect on their ultimate metric: getting a certain amount of mass into orbit without blowing up.
    To be fair to the critics, SpaceX will want to learn from the incident so they can improve their engine and that’s going to cost a bit of time. But although they won’t be as fast as their initial projections hoped for, the delay is measured in months.
    Once they figure stuff out and make some improvements, they’ll have gone from nothing to the best rocket in the world at 1/10th the cost of any competitor in a decade. There’s not a single person in the world who’s succeeded more than that, so not a single person in the world has the right to complain about their progress!

  6. Now that I know that the goal for Mars Colonists to be able to land 10 years from now does not include wasteful (& unnecessary) ERV’s, what seemed impossible last year now seems achievable. Falcon Heavy can help make it a reality, as well as the 53t goal for LEO. Who cares if the timetable slips by a year or two!

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