“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.
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.
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”.
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.
Great book (https://t.co/ljqGwo2yBA) with lots more C3. These are direct to Jupiter. Falcon Heavy, even expendable, can’t get anything direct to Jupiter, even on the lowest C3. Delta IV Heavy can get you 2 tons. pic.twitter.com/jpbdHQ8q2h
— Doug Ellison (@doug_ellison) February 3, 2018
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.
One example – a Delta IV Heavy outperforms the FHeavy Expendable by >30% for this Uranus mission design. (C3 of 52.6). Recovered Falcon Heavy can’t do it at all. pic.twitter.com/vjwsOYV3Dz
— Doug Ellison (@doug_ellison) February 3, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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