SpaceX’s mammoth Falcon Heavy returned spectacularly to flight at 9:41 a.m. EDT Tuesday, as the triple-barreled booster roared aloft from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, laden with a highly secretive payload for the U.S. Space Force. Pounding the chests and soles of feet of spectators along the Space Coast with around 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms) of thrust, the world’s most powerful active launch vehicle was making its first flight in more than three years, as a busy manifest for the end of 2022 and beyond beckons.
Although the Falcon 9 has previously flown classified payloads, today’s mission marked the first National Security Space Launch (NSSL) aboard the Falcon Heavy. “Every national security launch brings important capabilities to the nation and investments in space capabilities increase the effectiveness of operations in every other domain,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, executive officer for Assured Access to Space. “The U.S. military is better connected, more informed, faster and precise because of Space.”
All three boosters for today’s flight were making their inaugural outings, with the central core (B1066) expended in the Atlantic Ocean and the twin side-boosters (B1064 and B1065) recovered, with an expectation that they will help power to another Falcon Heavy airborne early next year. The entire suite has been in Florida for multiple months, with the side-boosters and center core having undergone full-duration static firings at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, from the late summer of 2020 through the early spring of last year.
But it appears that the payload itself—designated USSF-44—has been the “long pole” in delaying a mission originally slated to launch almost two years ago. Weighing an estimated 8,200 pounds (3,700 kilograms) and reportedly destined for near-direct insertion into Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), USSF-44 started life under the Air Force Space Command mission designator of “AFSPC-44”.
Contracts between SpaceX and the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., totaling $297 million, were signed back in February 2019. They covered the launches of AFSPC-44 and two other missions for the National Reconnaissance Office, NROL-87 and NROL-85.
Earlier this year, those two NRO missions—NROL-87 in February and NROL-85 in April—were successfully lifted to orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., atop “single-stick” Falcon 9 boosters. And following the formation of the Space Force in December 2019, AFSPC-44 found itself redesignated USSF-44.
Launch was originally expected at some point in Fiscal Year 2021 but found itself delayed from spring to summer to fall in response to payload readiness issues. It later slipped further into March and June 2022 and eventually into this fall.
Early last month, the Space Force revealed that the payload issues which kept USSF-44 ground-bound for so long had been resolved and on 23 October SpaceX tweeted that the Falcon Heavy was in the hangar near Pad 39A being readied for launch. This will be only the fourth outing of a Falcon Heavy, following its inaugural test flight in February 2018 and a pair of operational missions which delivered Saudi Arabia’s heavyweight Arabsat-6A communications satellite in April 2019 and the mixed-manifest Space Test Program (STP)-2 payload in the giant rocket’s first nighttime launch the following June.
The Heavy for USSF-44 was rolled out to Pad 39A last week for a Static Fire Test of the 27 Merlin 1D+ engines clustered across its three boosters. Weather conditions for the mission’s Tuesday launch were predicted to be highly favorable, with 90-percent probability for Tuesday, diminishing slightly to 80 percent on Wednesday and Thursday.
“The threat for showers over land will be low going into the primary launch window Tuesday morning, with light winds bringing overnight fog and stratus that lingers into the window,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base. “The primary weather concern will be a rogue Atlantic shower or enhanced cumulus brushing the coast.”
And that fog indeed manifested itself on Tuesday, with the Falcon Heavy barely visible at several stages as the countdown headed towards T-0. Liftoff occurred at 9:41 a.m. EDT Tuesday, at the opening of a 29-minute “window”, and for the first time in almost 41 months the world’s most powerful operational rocket was back in business.
The twin side-boosters separated from the stack at 2.5 minutes into ascent, with the center core continuing to power uphill for a further 90 seconds until separation at four minutes past liftoff. It was then left to the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon Heavy’s second stage to power the USSF-44 payload to orbit. Meanwhile, the side boosters alighted with pinpoint grace at LZ-1 and LZ-1 some 8.5 minutes after launch.
Riding alongside USSF-44 on today’s mission was the Space Force’s TETRA-1 experimental microsatellite, built by Millennium Space Systems of El Segundo, Calif., whose fabrication, testing and integration was completed within just 15 months in early 2020. And LDPE-2—a mouthful of an acronym, which denotes the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA—carries a suite of six small technology payloads, affixed to an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) “ring”.
Today’s flight of the Falcon Heavy marked the 50th SpaceX mission in the 43rd week of 2022—averaging a launch every six days—and continuing a trend as the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization’s most-flown year on record. Already, 2022 has greatly exceeded SpaceX’s previous personal best of 31 missions, accomplished last fall.
Eleven launches have occurred from Vandenberg on the West Coast, the remainder from KSC or neighboring Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Twelve Falcon 9 cores and the brand-new core and side-boosters of today’s Heavy have successfully lofted over 1,600 Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites, two classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office and three mixed-manifest Transporter missions.
Added to that list have been five powerful geostationary communications satellites, including the dual-stacked Galaxy 33/34 twins last month, Germany’s SARah-1 radar-imaging surveillance satellite and South Korea’s first mission to the Moon. Three other flights have delivered astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States, Canada, Israel, Italy, Japan and Russia to the International Space Station (ISS)—including April’s historic all-civilian Ax-1 mission—and the CRS-25 Cargo Dragon under the second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract.
And the Falcon Heavy, despite a three-year down time, has a busy manifest ahead. Next up, perhaps as early as December, will be the first of three ViaSat-3 ultra-high-capacity broadband satellites. Built by Boeing and with a communications payload furnished by Carlsbad, Calif.-based satellite broadband provider, ViaSat, Inc., the 13,000-pound (6,000-kilogram) satellite will be directly inserted into near-geostationary orbit for a 15-year operational lifetime.
Each member of the ViaSat-3 series is expected to offer more than one terabit per second (Tbps)—equivalent to 1,000 Gbps—of total network capacity. This will deliver a global broadband network with sufficient bandwidth to deliver affordable, ultra-high-speed, high-quality internet and video streaming services. The first ViaSat-3, flying aboard the Falcon Heavy, will provide coverage of the Americas, with two follow-on satellites set to launch via ULA’s Atlas V and Arianespace’s Ariane 6 to focus on Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and Asia and the Pacific (APAC).
ViaSat contracted the ViaSat-3 Americas launch to SpaceX back in October 2018, with an expectation that it would fly in the 2020-2022 timeframe, although inevitable delays arose following the worldwide march of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, together with contractor and supply-chain issues. In June 2021, ViaSat announced that it had completed payload integration and performance testing at its Tempe, Ariz., factory and was ready to ship it to Boeing’s El Segundo, Calif., facility for integration into the satellite bus. Last month, ViaSat noted that the satellite was undergoing acoustic tests.
According to ViaSat, the selection of the Heavy was made on account of its ability to emplace the satellite extremely close to geostationary orbit. This will enable it to commence In-Orbit Testing (IOT) quickly, rather than spending weeks or months maneuvering to its optimum position.
No sooner than January, another Heavy will deliver the classified USSF-67 payload, also for the Space Force, for which launch services and facilities contracts worth $316 million were awarded to SpaceX back in August 2020. Alongside USSF-67 will be the second Boeing-built Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS-2), destined for geostationary orbit to enhance military satellite communications capabilities and continuously broadcast military data through space-based relay links. CBAS-2 follows on the heels of CBAS-1, which flew atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V on the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-11 mixed-manifest mission, back in April 2018.
And later next spring, possibly as soon as April, a third Heavy will deliver the highly secretive USSF-52 payload—reportedly weighing 14,000 pounds (6,350 kilograms)— to orbit. Contracts worth $130 million for this mission were awarded to SpaceX in June 2018, with expectations to launch after September 2020.
A change in requirements was announced last year by the Department of Defense, in which SpaceX’s USSF-52 contract was adjusted to $149.2 million. By this stage, the launch had slipped into the second half of 2022.
Just last week, NASA announced that its first dedicated Falcon Heavy launch—laden with the Psyche probe, destined to explore the metal-rich asteroid of the same name—will go ahead in October 2023. Originally scheduled to fly this year, the mission was delayed in June, following the late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment.
NASA also plans to utilize Falcon Heavies to loft the next Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-U), together with Europa Clipper and the combined Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) of the lunar-orbiting Gateway. All three are presently slated for launches in April, October and November 2024, respectively.