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SpaceX Unveils Launch of Falcon Heavy, Worlds Most Powerful Rocket by 2013

The Falcon Heavy Rocket will be the most capable rocket in the world. only exceeded by the American Saturn V moon rocket which landed the first astronauts on the lunar surface in 1969. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk, the CEO and chief rocket designer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announced today (April 5) that SpaceX will build and launch the world’s most powerful rocket - dubbed the Falcon Heavy – within two years.

Musk said that he expects SpaceX will launch the first Falcon Heavy by late 2012 or early 2013 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“We are excited to announce the Falcon Heavy and only recently completed the design,” said Musk.

“Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.”

Musk unveiled the design plans for the privately developed, 227 foot tall heavy lift rocket at a briefing for reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

“This is a rocket of truly huge scale.”

Falcon Heavy would lift from 100,000 to 120,000 pounds to orbit, about three times the performance of the Falcon 9. It is comprised of three nine- engine Falcon 9 first stage booster cores and would utilize upgraded Merlin 1D engines currently being tested at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. The Falcon booster cores would be the first to have cross feed propellant capability enabling significant enhancements in payload performance, Musk explained.

“We expect to launch a lot, maybe 20 launches per year,” said Musk. He thinks that the launches would be spilt about equally between the current Falcon 9 and the new Falcon Heavy allowing SpaceX to compete in the full gamut of opportunities for commercial rocket providers. The Falcon Heavy could even be used for interplanetary science missions to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System (watch for follow up article).

With over 3.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, Falcon Heavy will be the most capable rocket flying. By comparison, the liftoff thrust of the Falcon Heavy equals fifteen Boeing 747 aircraft at full power. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy would also be launched from Cape Canaveral after upgrading the existing Falcon 9 pad at the Cape. Indeed a majority of launches is expected from Florida vs. California.

SpaceX is in discussions with NASA to also possibly use one of the shuttle pads at Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Both launch pads will be vacant after the shuttle stops flying later this year.

“First launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014,” Musk said.

The new heavy lift booster will have twice the performance capability of NASA’s retiring Space shuttle fleet or the Delta IV Heavy according to Musk.

“The Falcon Heavy will have more payload capability than any rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket.”

Musk said the Falcon Heavy will be dramatically cheaper and more cost effective compared to current rockets and set new world records in affordability and cost per pound. “The cost will be about $1000 per pound to orbit.” That price is a long sought and near mythical goal. It is also a critical selling point during these times of flat, very tight and declining budgets.

SpaceX says they are offering the Falcon 9 for some $50-60M and the Falcon Heavy for $80-$125M per launch. They say this compares to the projected Air Force average cost of $435M per launch for the 2012 budget year.

“The Falcon Heavy will be about one third the cost of the Delta IV Heavy and with twice the performance. That’s about 6 times more cost effective,” Musk stated. “That’s a pretty huge leap in capability.”

SpaceX will finance the cost of the first demonstration launch. The rocket will only loft several small payloads unless some organization is willing to take a gamble for a reduced cost. Without being specific, Musk added that SpaceX has had “strong interest from U.S. government agencies and commercial entities” for the second launch and beyond. “No one wants to be first.”

Comparison of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy offerd by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX

Ensuring reliability is key to SpaceX future. Musk explained that the Falcon Heavy is also designed to meet NASA human rating standards, unlike other satellite launch vehicles. The rocket is designed to meet higher structural safety margins of 40% above flight loads, rather than the 25% level of other rockets, and triple redundant avionics.

To date, SpaceX has launched two Falcon 9 rockets. NASA has awarded SpaceX with a $1.6 billion contract to conduct a minimum of twelve Falcon 9 flights with the Dragon spacecraft to deliver at least 20,000 kg of cargo to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) after the Space Shuttle is retired.

Musk said that there is a lot to be learned and applied from using high volume production techniques used in the automotive industry while maintaining stringent quality control.

The date of the frist Falcon Heavy launch is expected to depend greatly on regulatory requirements, just like the maiden launch of the Falcon 9.

The Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category. Capable of lifting over 32,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and over 19,500 kg to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), the Falcon Heavy will compete with the largest commercial launchers now available. It consists of a standard Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as liquid strap-on boosters. With the Falcon 9 first stage already designed to support the additional loads of this configuration and with common tanking and engines across both vehicles, development and operation of the Falcon Heavy will be highly cost-effective. Credit: SpaceX

Watch a SpaceX YouTube video about Falcon Heavy here:

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • lacalaca April 5, 2011, 8:55 PM

    Maybe nitpicking as it wasn’t really a big hit with only two launches, but the Soviet Energia was indeed more powerful than FH. (No offense but the word world means the entire lot on the globe.)

  • Torbjorn Larsson OM April 5, 2011, 9:07 PM

    Um, heavy!?

    Well, loads of import anyway. It follows the suggested development pathway, but exceeds the previous specs. One must note the good engineering sense, first designing the F 9 core so it can take/be side boosters, second design it so the combination can be man rated. It’s a bright new future. (If only because the CGI guys kept ramping up the light effects. :-o)

    But they cherry pick, naturally, with the promo’s “Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit than Falcon Heavy.” The Energia was capable of nearly twice as much in 1988, but only lifted an empty Buran at its one successful flight before being retired.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM April 5, 2011, 9:08 PM

      Yeah, I forgot to update… sorry lacalaca. Well, at least I offered a slightly different view.

  • Don Alexander April 5, 2011, 9:38 PM

    Andddd… I’m the third person to immediately notice Energia was missing. It was capable of > 100 tons to LEO.

  • philmetz April 5, 2011, 11:03 PM

    Gotta love the russians, they do everything so much cheaper and it works! no bureacracy

  • Eric E April 6, 2011, 12:20 AM

    We should stop decommissioning good rockets. It seems a waste of resources to keep developing heavy lifters over and over.

    Lets take what little capital we have left and start really working together between organizations. I don’t see Mars happening any other way.

    E

    • Eric E April 6, 2011, 12:21 AM

      Also, could someone fill me in on NASA’s current rocket development?
      Thanks!

      • lacalaca April 6, 2011, 5:55 AM

        Uhm… Here’s an outsider’s view (I guess you mean manned spaceflight): NASA is still working on Constellation as the US Congress can’t do their job and agree on the FY2011 budget. Congress also wants NASA to develop a big-ass rocket by 2016 based on shuttle parts (essentially ’70s tech), to keep their shuttle-building voters happy. On a shoestring, flat budget. Many in Congress also argues that commercial cargo and crew is daydreaming and will fail sooner or later (ask Elon Musk about that). But their big-ass rocket will save the day – just like Constellation supposed to do it. Oh yes and this time even NASA says they can’t do it by 2016. But they will present some plans around June anyway.

        • TerryG April 6, 2011, 11:07 AM

          Nice summary.

        • Eric E April 6, 2011, 4:30 PM

          That’s about what I thought =[

          Unfortunate they’re limited to giving funds to private companies and not just consolidating manned programs.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM April 6, 2011, 10:58 AM

      In technology, it is a matter of “use it or loose it”.

      That said, this post had me look over the Energia again, and I’ll now have to place it in my personal “2nd most beautiful rocket” (w/o the Buran) before Falcon X. I don’t have to say which is # 1 …

  • Aqua April 6, 2011, 12:54 AM

    Vah VAH VOOM! Yah SO! Lets go! Space-X appears ready to knock the socks off the competition? Will the ‘good old boys’ let that happen?

  • Dominion April 6, 2011, 12:55 AM

    If the Saturn V was such a great rocket, and everything i’ve read suggests that is was, then why can’t it be recommissioned? it’s like we invented the wheel and then decided it just wasn’t round enough or something. i can understand moving on if you have something that does not work but the Saturn looks like it should have been a keeper.

    • Aqua April 6, 2011, 1:21 AM

      The Saturn V was developed during the late 1950’s early 1960’s. Materials engineering, fluid dynamics and computational analysis tools have come a long way since then! The shuttle engines, which are the next generation or two after the Saturn engines may be proven workhorses, but are very expensive to maintain. Space-X seems to have found a simpler manufacturing solution with the bonus of improved reliability. Nice!

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM April 6, 2011, 11:14 AM

      You are putting two separate questions on the table: 1. could we recommission old technology? 2. should we have kept Saturn V?

      On the 2nd, I don’t think anyone has a firm historical answer. The politics of the time combined with the rising cost to do “new stuff” (to keep socio-political momentum) was eventually too steep a cliff for even Saturn to rise over.

      On the 1st it is a recurring question. But if you have studied industry or even handcrafted things yourself, you likely already know the answer. The know how is in the people doing it, not in the blueprints (that can never capture everything that needs to be known).

      As soon as you sufficiently enough stop production, scatter the people or scatter the individual tools that they know how to work, Humpty Dumpty has fell off the wall. And no force on Earth can put it together again. You have to develop a new one, perhaps nearly from scratch at times.

      As for Saturn IIRC somewhat famously [which may be an oxymoron seeing that I'm uncertain at the moment] the blueprints have gone missing in the “round archive”, because they weren’t even considered historically valuable at the time… [Sometimes I wish blueprints should be covered under "literature" so the national libraries had to have one copy, keeping track of technological history. But it would be costly and commercial spy prone. Oh well.] So that was not even an option in the first place!

  • gopher65 April 6, 2011, 1:30 AM

    Dominion: That’s what the Ares 5 was. A Saturn 5 redesigned with modern technology (more or less, anyway.). The problem with the Saturn 5 had nothing to do with it’s physical performance, but rather with its price; at the time ~25% of the US national budget was directed toward NASA in order to pay for the development and launch of those massive, overpriced Saturn 5 rockets. If Americans want their sales, income, corporate, and capital gains taxes increased by 16% across the board, then that would be possible today as well:) (if you include eliminating the current budget deficit).

    The amusing thing is that even if the US completely cancelled its military and devoted all that money to NASA, it *still* couldn’t fund NASA up to its peak levels of the 60s (as a percentage of the budget). Heh.

    • Uncle Fred April 6, 2011, 5:35 AM

      What about also scraping the nukes/F35 fighter, extracting ourselves from conflicts, best case scenario derived from reforming entitlements and pension plans/heathcare.

      Imagine the money education, research, science and technology could have!

      Glorious!

      …I can only dream.

      • Uncle Fred April 6, 2011, 5:39 AM

        Don’t forget a refocused NASA that left the orbital ferry service to commercial players. In addition to a Presidential directive to commit NASA to a long-term road map with clearly defined goals and a timeline to achieve them. This road map would include mandated participation and financing from our international partners – including China.

        … I can only dream.

        • Torbjorn Larsson OM April 6, 2011, 11:39 AM

          Don’t forget that it was “a Presidential directive to commit NASA to a long-term road map with clearly defined goals and a timeline to achieve them” that landed NASA in the current mess, with the only way to recover cheaply to have a manned launcher gap. So that clearly doesn’t work.

          The reason should, as I understand it, be in the US (or any government) bureaucratic structure. As long as you want to reassess budgets, and you will, you don’t have a guaranteed financial support over long enough time. It works for big ass projects such as Apollo-Saturn to the Moon, because there is recurring political support which in turn stem from the social goals and motivations at the time (cold war; technodreams of the time).

          It doesn’t work for humdrum but expensive exploration. It works for Antarctica, but I gather the differences are a) there are borders, i.e. land ‘ownership’ (stewardship) involved) b) it is cheap enough. SpaceX tries to take a grip on the later, and as for the former hopefully it isn’t needed.

          One way to make “the NASA dream” work would perhaps be to place enough money in a fund? But governments typically doesn’t do that. (And look what happens when US tries to use insurance fund programs for national health concerns.) And then you run the risk of the funded agency growing fat and happy and sitting on its ass.

          • Uncle Fred April 6, 2011, 5:54 PM

            There has got to be a way to make NASA work better as an organization. NASA should be doing things that the private industry can’t risk. To be honest, I can understand the general level of disinterest in the governmental space agency.

            NASA should be leading the effort on a heavy lifter. Instead it looks like SpaceX will take the helm on this. Maybe this is for the better.

            I think you hit the nail on this. NASA can’t function optimally because of budget reviews and changing political winds. Perhaps I’d also add a culture of wasteful bureaucracy, special interests, and the lack of a mission that the public would find interesting.

  • Aqua April 6, 2011, 1:54 AM

    WOW! #100,000 – 150,000 to LEO~ I’m impressed! So soon too… That will open some doors!

    • Aqua April 6, 2011, 6:31 AM

      I wonder what that thing will sound like with all the engines burning?

  • xrayexplorer April 6, 2011, 2:00 PM

    For sune I was perusing around online looking for possible top stage boosters and found a couple in the 5 -10 000 kg class which I think are ~ 2-4 times the mass of the surrent Star 48 class being used by Delta and Atlas etc.

    Does anyone have an idea of what the throw mass would be to Jupiter? (C3 = 80km/sec2) with an apropriatly sized booster?

  • Gary W. Longsine April 13, 2011, 1:06 AM

    @gopher65 – The NASA budget was never anywhere close to that. At its peak during the Apollo years it was a bit over 5% of the federal budget. Here are a couple graphs which show the actual, very modest budget with which NASA sent men to the moon and a few other interesting links on the topic.

    NASA on an unsustainable trajectory
    http://jeffreyellis.org/blog/?p=1614

    NASA Budget over time
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_Budget

    Before NASA Budget Was Cut, Americans Did Great Things
    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/04/before-nasas-budget-was-cut-americans-did-exceptional-things/237151/

  • Gary W. Longsine April 13, 2011, 1:13 AM

    By the way, if you look at the table on the Wikipedia page, you’ll see that the peak years for NASA was 1965, where NASA funding was about $33.5 Billion (in constant 2007 dollars). So, basically doubling the meager current NASA budget would put us back in the ball park of Apollo level funding. That would cost us less than $20 Billion a year, in current dollars.

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