SpaceX unveils new Falcon Heavy rocket - WORLD'S BIGGEST
Elon Musk moves towards dream of boots-on-Mars glory
SpaceX, the famous upstart startup rocket company founded on PayPal hecamillionaire Elon Musk's internet fortune, has announced details of its latest and mightiest launcher - which will be the most powerful rocket in the world.
“Falcon Heavy will arrive at our Vandenberg, California, launch complex by the end of next year with liftoff to follow soon thereafter," says Musk. "First launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014.”
The "Falcon Heavy" formally announced by Musk yesterday consists essentially of three Falcon 9 lower stages fixed together side by side with a single upper stage attached above the centre unit and payload on top. Each of the Falcon 9s has nine of SpaceX's proprietary "Merlin" engines arranged in a three-by-three grid at its base, hence the name. The Falcon Heavy might as easily have been dubbed the Falcon 27.
The single-core Falcon 9 has already flown, sending up a "Dragon" capsule into orbit which then successfully came in to land in a Pacific splashdown, marking a first for a private company - and an achievement equalled by only a handful of government entities. The Dragon is intended to deliver first cargo and then perhaps astronauts to the International Space Station in the post-Shuttle era.
Musk says that his new Falcon Heavy will be able to deliver no less than 54 tonnes of cargo to orbit, doubling the performance of the existing Delta IV Heavy, the biggest US rocket currently on offer - but at "less than one third the cost" of the incumbent big-boy.
According to SpaceX:
The 2012 budget for four Air Force launches is $1.74B, which is an average of $435M per launch. Falcon 9 is offered on the commercial market for $50-60M and Falcon Heavy is offered for $80-$125M. Unlike our competitors, this price includes all non-recurring development costs and on-orbit delivery of an agreed upon mission. For government missions, NASA has added mission assurance and additional services to the Falcon 9 for less than $20M.
Musk is known to have his eye on the lucrative business of sending up spy satellites for the military and the intelligence community: there is potentially more money to be earned there than working for NASA.
All the same, SpaceX remains true to its original vision of lowering the costs of access to space as a means towards boosting exploration. The Falcon 9 and now Falcon Heavy are built to conform with NASA standards for manned missions, including such things as triply redundant avionics and structural margins 40 per cent above flight loads.
Dragon capsules atop Falcon 9s could, the company contends, easily carry replacement crew up to the ISS in place of the Soyuz ships which will be the only option once the Shuttles retire. The Falcon Heavy might even carry "interplanetary spacecraft". One notes that a Heavy could on the face of it be used to launch an "Orion" Crew Exploration Vehicle of the sort intended under the Bush administration for manned missions to the Moon and Mars.
Presidents Bush and Obama were unable to get sufficient funding from Congress for these ambitious "Constellation" plans as they stood, and thus they were largely axed. The Orion itself was reprieved by Obama at the last minute.
Such far-flung missions would also require additional modules such as lander ships, supplies etc. It was anticipated under Constellation that these would be sent up separately atop a mighty Ares V heavy lift rocket, while the Orion and its astronauts went up on a smaller man-rated launcher.
So who should NASA go to for the new "super heavy" Mars rocket? Well, just maybe the guy with the most powerful rocket in the world right now
The heavy lifter would need to be on the order of the titanic - and titanically expensive - Saturn V launchers which carried men to the Moon in the long-ago Apollo programme. The Ares V design used recycled technology from Shuttle and Apollo, burning cryogenic hydrogen fuel. Its projected expense was a major reason for the axing of Constellation.
Today's 'Heavy' is one of the little ones in the middle: not to be confused with the probably upcoming Super Heavy.
Under Obama's post-Constellation plan NASA will select a new heavy lifter design in 2015, which will enable deep-space missions beyond the Earth-Moon system to be assembled. Announcing this roadmap last year, the president said:
In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there.
Please note that Falcon Heavy should not be confused with the super heavy lift rocket program being debated by the US Congress. That vehicle is authorized to carry between 70-130 metric tons to orbit. SpaceX agrees with the need to develop a vehicle of that class as the best way to conduct a large number of human missions to Mars.
Nonetheless it's well known that SpaceX doesn't intend to rest content with merely trumping the existing Soyuz and Delta IV Heavy. The Falcon Heavy is probably the ultimate that can be achieved using Merlin engines, but SpaceX has plans for a new and more powerful "Merlin 2" engine. Like the Merlin it would burn kerosene rather than difficult-to-handle, costly cryogenic hydrogen: as with the Merlin, this would lower the costs of rockets based on it.
A single Merlin 2 might at first be test-flown in a Falcon 9, rather as the original Merlin was initially tested in the single-engined Falcon 1. The new engine might also be used to enhance the Falcon Heavy.
But after such initial operations, clusters of Merlin 2s could be used to drive new and bigger rockets, just as clustered Merlins drive the 9 and the Heavy. A Merlin 2 version of today's Heavy, using three side-by-side lower stage nine-engine cores, would be at the upper end of the NASA super-heavy-lift requirement - indeed, if it exceeded initial projections as much as the Heavy seems likely to (the Heavy was originally predicted to carry only 30+ tonnes, not 50+) it would be much more powerful than officially required, easily eclipsing the Saturn Vs of yesteryear.
And if Musk can keep his costs down as well as he is doing so far, the Falcon X Heavy - or whatever it might turn out to be called - would also be much, much cheaper than rival super-heavies offered by the established US rocket industry which makes the likes of the Delta IV Heavy and the Shuttle. It would surely be much cheaper than the Saturn V.
It took the Space Race and former President John F Kennedy's massive personal charisma to push through enough funding for Saturn V and Apollo: that funding collapsed halfway through the Moon landings and ever since, NASA has struggled to achieve anything beyond low Earth orbit.
But if Musk can stay on track, providing lift at a sixth of his competitors' prices and scaling up all the time, even the NASA budget obtainable by some less iconic future president might genuinely suffice for a future kerosene-fuelled Apollo programme, one able to finally put a manned Mars mission - and many other exciting projects - into space at last.
Still, Musk and SpaceX will have a tough political fight on their hands when the super-heavy rocket call gets made in 2015: rocket operations on the SpaceX model mean lost jobs in vast numbers not only at Lockheed, Boeing et al but also at NASA itself - observers will have noted that the controllers of the most recent Falcon launch were not NASA employees but SpaceX ones.
Musk will need at least one successful Falcon Heavy launch under his belt if he's going to overcome the vast political clout of the established rocket industry in four years' time. But if he's in that position - operator of the most powerful flight tested launch rocket in the world, bar none - it will be very hard for anyone to say that SpaceX isn't a serious (or indeed, the most serious) contender for the job.
It looks set to be a dramatic few years ahead on the space beat. ®