Riding the plumes of its 27 engines, and carrying the hopes and dreams of a generation, the most powerful rocket in the world took flight earlier today (Tuesday, 6 February), as SpaceX’s mammoth Falcon Heavy conducted its long-awaited maiden test-flight. The “triple niner”—which boasts three Upgraded Falcon 9 booster cores, each equipped with nine Merlin 1D+ engines—lifted off from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 3:45 p.m. EST, just 45 minutes before the closure of Tuesday’s three-hour “window”. Efforts to get the Heavy airborne earlier in the window had been frustrated by concerns over upper-level wind shear. Eight minutes after launch, the Heavy’s two side-mounted boosters smoothly alighted on separate pads at Landing Zones (LZ) 1 and 2 at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but it can be confirmed that the center core stage did not succeed in touching down on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), nicknamed “Of Course I Still Love You”, in the Atlantic Ocean.
“All of us in this business know the effort it takes to get to a first flight of any new vehicle and recognize the tremendous accomplishment we witnessed today,” said Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “I am really proud of the hard work of our NASA team, in particular at Kennedy, for the transformation into a multi-user spaceport. Watching the Falcon Heavy rise above the historic pad that has been the launch point for so many critical missions is a true testament to the hard work transitioning our nation’s launch infrastructure in support of the commercial launch industry.”
“The successful launch of a new vehicle on its first flight is a significant accomplishment they can be very proud of,” added KSC Director and former shuttle astronaut Bob Cabana. “As a multi-user spaceport, I look forward to the continued expansion of commercial spaceflight from Kennedy and the integration of a new class of launch vehicle into our Nation’s space program.”
Today’s phenomenal success comes only weeks after the 50th anniversary of the first voyage of the Saturn V and it is difficult not to feel a pang of nostalgia and an uplifting sense of optimism for future space exploration. As outlined previously by AmericaSpace, the Falcon Heavy was long expected to become the most powerful rocket in active operational service. Its 27 Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines would punch out 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kg) of thrust at the instant of liftoff, more than double the 2.2 million pounds (1 million kg) produced by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy, which is now relegated to second place on the list of highest-capacity rockets. With such an immense lifting capability, the Falcon Heavy can deliver 140,700 pounds (63,800 kg) to low-Earth orbit, 58,900 pounds (26,700 kg) to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) and 37,000 pounds (16,800 kg) to Mars. Admittedly, the Heavy does not reach the liftoff thrust achieved by the last few Saturn V vehicles, which peaked at close to 7.6 million pounds (3.4 million kg) and falls far short of the reported 10.2 million pounds (4.6 million kg) attained at launch by the Soviet Union’s ill-fated N-1 super-heavylifter.
Yet with NASA’s evolvable Space Launch System (SLS) still up to two years away from its maiden voyage, the success of today’s mission puts the Falcon Heavy in pole position to draw some impressive contracts. Already lined up for the booster are Saudi Arabia’s 13,200-pound (6,000 kg) Arabsat 6A communications satellite, slated to fly later this year, as well as the Space Test Program (STP)-2 group of payloads for the Department of Defense, flying in support of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) certification process for the Heavy. Other missions were contracted with Intelsat—the Heavy’s first commercial client—and Inmarsat, although ongoing delays to the new booster prompted them to be shifted onto either the Upgraded Falcon 9 or onto Europe’s Ariane 5. Further ahead, the Heavy’s first crewed voyage is expected to see a pair of private tourists circumnavigate the Moon, as outlined by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in February 2017.
Formally unveiled as a concept almost seven years ago, the Falcon Heavy’s development process has been a long and tortured one, with Mr. Musk acquiescing that the idea was far more complex than “simply” strapping three Falcon 9 cores together. Early plans envisaged the debut of the booster in 2013 or 2014, with the first flight conducted from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., followed by missions from the East Coast. In spite of initial doubts about the new rocket’s capabilities, SpaceX secured a 20-year lease of Pad 39A in April 2014, with an expectation that the historic Apollo-era launch complex would provide the foundation for the Heavy’s inaugural voyages. Agonizingly, the booster fell further and further behind schedule, with the maiden launch always seemingly slated to occur “this year”, yet continually slipping to the right.
A glimmer of hope emerged late in 2017, when Mr. Musk revealed the first images of Falcon Heavy hardware being readied in the horizontal integration facility, close to Pad 39A. It was announced that the two side-mounted boosters would be “re-flown” cores which previously saw service to loft the Thaicom-8 communications satellite to geostationary orbit in May 2016 and the CRS-9 Dragon towards the International Space Station (ISS) the following July. By contrast, the central core of the first Falcon Heavy would be entirely new. It was expected that the side-mounted boosters would return to alight on solid ground on two separate pads at the Cape’s Landing Zones (LZ) 1 and 2, whilst the central core would attempt an oceanic touchdown on the ASDS in the Atlantic Ocean. Teasing his followers, Mr. Musk revealed in December that instead of flying an “extremely boring” mass simulator aboard the first Heavy, SpaceX would instead fly a midnight cherry-red Tesla Roadster car, targeted on a heliocentric trajectory, to cross Mars’ orbit and spend perhaps a billion years in space. More recently, it became clear that the “Starman”—a fully-suited mannequin “passenger”—would occupy the driver’s seat, serenaded by the strains of David Bowie.
Shortly before the New Year, the Heavy was erected on Pad 39A, showing off its 230-foot-tall (70-meter) bulk to the world for the first time. Measuring 40 feet (12.2 meters) across the diameter of its three boosters, it weighed a total of 3.1 million pounds (1.4 million kg), a suitable incumbent for a launch pad which had previously played host to the gargantuan Saturn V and, more recently, the Space Shuttle. Following several days of fit-checks, the booster was returned to the horizontal integration facility, before returning to the pad in mid-January and, after several false starts, conducted a successful Static Fire Test of its 27 engines on the 24th. “Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good,” tweeted Mr. Musk. “Generated quite a thunderhead of steam.” At length, SpaceX settled on Tuesday, 6 February for the opening launch attempt, with a three-hour window, extending from 1:30 p.m. through 4:30 p.m. EST. The ASDS reportedly departed Port of Jacksonville early on Saturday, 3 February, headed for its position in the Atlantic Ocean.
The weather outlook for Tuesday was expected to be favorable, with the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base predicting an 80-percent probability of good conditions for the three-hour “window”, tempered by a risk of violating the Liftoff Winds and Thick Cloud Rules. It was expected that winds would become more easterly at about 15 mph (24 km/h), with a few low-level clouds coming in off the water, with maximum upper-level winds from the west at 90 knots near 40,000 feet (12,000 meters). As launch day dawned, conditions seemed to improve to 90-percent favorable, but the upper-level wind situation prompted a slight shift until 2:20 p.m., almost an hour into the window. “Continuing to minitor winds and will update as info becomes available,” SpaceX tweeted. Revised launch times of 2:50 p.m. and 3:10 p.m. were subsequently determined, with SpaceX eventually co-ordinating a T-0 at 3:45 p.m. Eighty-five minutes before launch, the loading of a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) into the core and side-mounted boosters got underway. By 3 p.m., the side-mounted boosters were fully fueled and entered “topping” and the loading of liquid oxygen got underway.
The minutes ticked onward and at T-60 seconds the vehicle entered “Startup”, in which the Falcon Heavy’s on-board computers assumed primary command of the vehicle’s critical functions. At 3:45 p.m., the Pad 39A surface was pummeled with 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kg) of thrust and spectators along the Space Coast were greeted by a vast cloud of smoke, before the wall of sound hit them. Ponderously, the booster rose from the pad and began to climb into the crystal Florida sky. Notwithstanding Mr. Musk’s personal doubts that this mission might fail, or achieve limited success, each milestone seemed to smoothly and effortlessly tick itself off the list. At 2.5 minutes into the flight, the two side-mounted boosters were jettisoned, followed by the shutdown and separation of the first stage of the center core. All three boosters plummeted back Earthward, headed for their respective landing spots. Next, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage ignited, beginning a voyage more closely akin to previous Upgraded Falcon 9 launches. Even SpaceX’s John Insprucker noted that, from this point onward, the Heavy’s flight profile mirrored that of a “standard” mission.
But today’s mission was far from standard. Eight minutes after leaving KSC, the two side-mounted boosters—like a pair of twirling ballet-dancers—plunged from the skies, virtually side-by-side, synchronized almost to the second, and alighted on separate ground pads. “Falcon Heavy side cores have landed at SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2,” the company noted at 3:54 p.m. In the meantime, on the tenuous edge of the atmosphere, the second stage shut down at 3:55 p.m. The stack coasted for several minutes, before the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum was re-lit at 4:14 p.m., to position Mr. Musk’s Tesla Roadster into a coasting orbit, ahead of injection onto a heliocentric trajectory. “Upper stage restart nominal, apogee raised to 4,350 miles (7,000 km),” tweeted Mr. Musk at 4:30 p.m. “Will spend five hours getting zapped in Van Allen [radiation] belts & then attempt final burn for Mars.”
And it was at this point that perhaps the next most astonishing images from the mission appeared: views of “Starman”, gloved hands on the wheel of the Roadster, backdropped by the glorious, cloud-flecked limb of Earth rising in the windshield. Millions of mesmerized YouTube watchers struggled to ascertain if the views were fake or Photoshopped. Later, at a post-launch press conference, Mr. Musk himself set them straight. Pointing to the lack of an atmosphere, which lent a weird clarity to the scene, he joked that “You can tell it’s real…because it looks so fake!”
He went on to describe the newly-returned side-mounted boosters as being “in really good condition” and “both reflyable”. Moreover, seeing them land in tandem, gave Mr. Musk “a lot of faith in our next architecture”. By his own admission, he did not anticipate the mission to succeed as well as it did. “Crazy things can come true,” he told a rapt audience. “I didn’t really think this could work.” And part of the mission, it seems, did not go to plan. The center core of the booster apparently only lit one of the three engines for its Landing Burn and ended up hitting the ocean at 300 mph (480 km/h). Mr. Musk noted that there were no plans to re-use the center core and that he was satisfied with the successful recovery of the side-mounted boosters, which were fitted with upgraded titanium grid-fins.
Tuesday, 6 February 2018 ended with the question on everyone’s lips: Did I really just see that? From the largest and most powerful rocket in active service, anywhere in the world, to synchronized landings of two boosters, to a car journeying around the Home Planet, playing the songs of David Bowie, today has been a remarkable day. “Today’s show @NASAKennedy reminded me of a similar image from the not-too-distant past,” tweeted NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold. “Humans doing bold things. What a day!”