A little over a year ago, SpaceX pulled off a showy first launch for its new rocket, the Falcon Heavy. The flight dispatched founder Elon Musk’s cherry-red Tesla convertible, with an empty spacesuit dubbed Starman in the driver’s seat, on a multimillion-year journey around the solar system. After the launch, the rocket’s three first-stage boosters returned to Earth to attempt an unprecedented synchronized landing.
Now that rocket is getting ready to fly again. The Falcon Heavy represents SpaceX’s ambition of competing for lucrative heavy-launch commercial and government contracts, which would require transporting payloads weighing more than 40,000 pounds into geosynchronous orbit. If this second flight is successful, the Falcon Heavy will be much closer to satisfying the military’s strict requirements and landing those deals.
The two-hour launch window for the first commercial flight of the Falcon Heavy from Kennedy Space Center in Florida opens today at 6:35 pm ET. Originally scheduled to fly on Sunday, the launch was delayed twice due to unfavorable weather conditions. This mission will carry a Saudi Arabian telecommunications satellite, dubbed Arabsat 6A, into a geosynchronous orbit, where it will provide television, internet, and telephone services for countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. A few minutes after launch, SpaceX will attempt to land each of the rocket’s three first stage boosters—two on landing pads near the launch site and one on a floating drone ship 600 miles off the coast. Last year, SpaceX successfully brought two boosters back to land, but fuel issues prevented the center core from sticking its landing.
As the most powerful operational rocket in existence by a factor of two, the Falcon Heavy is nothing short of a technological marvel. With the thrust equivalent of about 18 747 airliners, it can hoist around 140,000 pounds into low Earth orbit and 58,000 pounds into geosynchronous orbit, more than enough to handle the 13,000 pound Arabsat. The Falcon Heavy’s main selling point, however, is that it is the only heavy launch vehicle in the world that has reusability baked into its design.
Each of the Falcon Heavy’s three first-stage boosters are borrowed directly from SpaceX’s flagship Falcon 9 rocket, so named for the nine Merlin engines that provide its thrust. Unlike the Falcon Heavy’s first flight, which used an older model of booster, today’s vehicle will consist of three new block 5 engine cores. SpaceX first launched the block 5 Falcon 9 rocket last May, and has flown these boosters 13 times since. The block 5 is designed to fly at least 10 times with minimal refurbishment between launches, and it offers a 7 percent increase in thrust over its predecessors.
If the Falcon Heavy can prove its mettle, it could cut the cost of heavy launches dramatically. Since 2004, the US heavy launch market has been dominated by the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV heavy rocket, which has half the lift capability at approximately four times the cost. A single ride on the Delta IV heavy has been quoted at around $350 million, whereas a Falcon Heavy launch starts at $90 million for a brand-new rocket, a price point that may go as low as $70 million for launches using previously flown boosters.
For companies looking to launch a large satellite, the savings are significant. But SpaceX will likely find its biggest customer in the US government. The existence of the Falcon Heavy could be good news for future deep-space exploration missions, which often require heavy-launch capability to throw the spacecraft to Mars and beyond. These missions already have to fight to justify their cost, and between 10 and 20 percent of a mission price tag is generally reserved for the launch itself. If NASA can shave tens of millions of dollars off the cost of sending its spacecraft to other planets, these savings could, in principle, be used to develop exploration missions that would have otherwise been defunded.
To handle military payloads, SpaceX still faces a number of hurdles before the rocket is cleared for use. The Air Force reserved a flight on the Falcon Heavy in 2012, with an initial launch date scheduled for no earlier than 2015. That has yet to happen, but it didn’t stop the military from awarding SpaceX a $130 million contract to launch a classified satellite on a Falcon Heavy only months after its demo flight. Earlier this year, SpaceX won a second Air Force contract for another classified satellite that is expected to fly on the Falcon Heavy. In February, however, the Department of Defense launched an investigation into the military certification of SpaceX rockets for reasons that remain unclear.
These government deals are becoming increasingly important to SpaceX, especially with the commercial market for large satellites appearing to slow. Indeed, a perusal of the launch manifest for the Delta IV heavy shows that the majority of its flights over the past 15 years have hosted military payloads, and the ability to snag some of these lucrative contracts in the future would represent a major windfall for SpaceX.
The Air Force will undoubtedly be paying close attention to the Arabsat launch today, which will help prove that the rocket can safely deliver its sensitive payloads to orbit. Moreover, the two side boosters flying today are expected to be reused in the first Air Force mission this summer, assuming they land successfully back at Kennedy Space Center after their flight.
Meanwhile, the US military is helping to clear the way for a new generation of heavy-launch vehicles that will eventually compete against SpaceX. In March, the US government overhauled its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which was created nearly two decades before SpaceX demonstrated a reusable rocket for the first time. Under these old guidelines, reusable heavy-launch vehicles under development, like the Blue Origin New Glenn rocket, would’ve had a hard time qualifying for sensitive military missions since the rockets aren’t expendable. The new National Security Space Launch program will provide a clear pathway for certifying rockets using previously flown parts for military missions, a change largely driven by the success of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
Although it will eventually mean more competition, the military’s willingness to embrace the new generation of rockets is paying off for SpaceX. It already has two Air Force missions on the books for Heavy, the first of which is expected to fly as early as mid-June. Whether or not SpaceX can hit this target date depends on their ability to meet the rigorous certification standards for military contracts—and by sticking the landing of the Falcon Heavy boosters today.