SpaceX Just Launched a Tesla Into Space on the Most Powerful Rocket in the World
What the Falcon Heavy means for the future of spaceflight.
Image: Daniel Oberhaus
Early Tuesday afternoon SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V first took astronauts to the moon almost 50 years ago and the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two.
I watched the launch from NASA’s press site, about 3.5 miles from the launch pad. NASA was expecting to host around 400 reporters from all around the world to view this historic flight and the grass lawn began to fill with press hours before the launch.
Many of the reporters on site had been following the development of the Falcon Heavy for nearly a decade. First announced in 2011, the Falcon Heavy has been beleaguered by setbacks from the outset. Its maiden flight was originally promised in 2013, but it didn’t make it to Kennedy Space Center until late last year.
Kennedy Space Center was also packed to capacity with public spectators. The sprawling visitor center on the outskirts of Kennedy Space Center sold out its tickets for launch viewing and cars stretched for miles on the roads outside of Kennedy the morning before launch. Tickets to the visitor’s center cost between $35 and $195, more than double the amount for a standard launch.
Those unable to get a ticket had to join the estimated 100,000 others who traveled to the Space Cape to watch the launch from the narrow causeways leading to Kennedy Space Center. This rivals the numbers of Shuttle-era launches, which would frequently attract 100,000 viewers or more.
The spectacle was understandable. The power of the Falcon Heavy’s engines, even from miles away, was overwhelming. Shortly after ignition, a massive plume of exhaust mushroomed over the launch pad and was soon followed by a deafening acoustic shockwave that was quite literally chest rattling. The rocket quickly disappeared into low hanging clouds, but the sound of its engines continued to pummel observers on the ground.
Only minutes after liftoff, twin sonic booms echoed across Kennedy Space Center as the first two Falcon Heavy boosters landed about nine miles away from the launch pad. The hundreds of spectators, press members and NASA and SpaceX employees at the viewing site erupted in cheers. The main core destined to land on the autonomous barge in the Atlantic Ocean wasn't recovered, but the mood was still exuberant at Kennedy.
The rocket’s payload was the first Tesla roadster, a $112,000 luxury vehicle produced by Musk’s company nearly a decade ago. The car was blasting David Bowie music as it left Earth to follow Mars in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. According to Musk, the car and its passenger—an empty SpaceX spacesuit behind the wheel—should be in its orbit for the next “billion years or so.”
THE EXTREME ENGINEERING OF THE FALCON HEAVY
Each of the Falcon Heavy’s three boosters hosts nine Merlin engines, which together generate about 5 million pounds of thrust—equivalent to about 18 Boeing 747s with their engines going full throttle. The rocket launched from pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, famous for being the launch pad for the Apollo moon missions and the setting was fitting, considering that the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V that carried the first astronauts to the Moon.
For this launch, the two boosters on the side of the Falcon Heavy were previously flown Falcon 9 boosters that first went to space in 2016. The main booster in the middle carried the rocket’s second stage and the Tesla roadster payload. This booster was adapted from the original Falcon 9 design in order to withstand the intense vibrations and aerodynamic pressures produced during launch, which are three times greater than during a normal Falcon 9 launch.
Musk elaborated all the things that could go wrong during flight during a conference call with reporters Monday night.
“Going through a sound barrier you get these supersonic shockwaves and you could have two shockwaves interact that amplify the effect” Musk said. “That could a structural failure as it goes transsonic. At max dynamic air pressure, where the force on the rocket is the greatest, we're a bit worried about ice falling from the upper stage onto the boosters and it would kind of cannonball through the nose cone.”
Any of these factors, and a number of unforseen others, could risk an explosion, something that Musk has made explicit several times in the past. During the press conference Monday, he said that if something goes wrong, he hopes its well into the flight of the Falcon Heavy. This would not only give SpaceX engineers more information about the failure, it would also protect the launch pad from an explosion. Musk said that if the explosion occurred on the pad, it could take up to a year before it was usable again. By contrast, if the rocket fails during flight, SpaceX could try a relaunch within about 3 months.
Approximately one minute after ignition, the Falcon Heavy reached its peak in terms of the amount of aerodynamic stressors acting on the rocket. About two minutes after launch, the two side first-stage boosters separated from the Falcon Heavy, fired their retrothrusters—engines oriented away from the ground—and began their return to Earth. About thirty seconds later, the main center core separates from the upper stage of the rocket carrying the car and returns to terra firma.
Meanwhile in space, the upper stage fired its single Merlin engine booster and will drift through the intense radiation found tens of thousands of miles above Earth. After 6 hours, it will reginite its engine for a final boost into interplanetary space before releasing its payload—a sensor-ridden spacesuit behind the driver’s seat of Elon Musk’s convertible—into a billion year orbit following Mars around the sun.
WHY THE FALCON HEAVY MATTERS
The Falcon Heavy is essentially three of SpaceX’s flagship Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, but it only costs 45 percent more than a Falcon 9 with a price tag at around $90 million for the Heavy.
This is a far cry from the only other comparable rocket in terms of power, the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, which the Government Accountability Office found to cost around $400 million per launch. As SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell quipped after the GAO report, “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket.”
The reason SpaceX is able to make a rocket as powerful as the Falcon Heavy for a fourth of the price of its competitors is the extreme modularity and reusability of its rocket design. As Elon Musk explained to reporters during a press conference, by the time the Falcon Heavy is perfected, the only part it will have to completely replace each launch is the main core’s second stage. Both side boosters can be reused from previous flights, as can the main core. The company is also working on technology to recover the fairing, the ‘case’ on top of the rockets carrying the mission payloads.
“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk said last July. “Really way, way more difficult than we originally thought. We were pretty naive about that.”
The setbacks are understandable, given the technical difficulties faced by SpaceX and what was at stake with a successful Falcon Heavy launch. Creating the Falcon Heavy required overcoming a number of significant engineering problems: For example, SpaceX had to produce the largest casting of titanium in history for the retractable landing legs on the first stage booster. This is also the first time SpaceX tested its release system for the two side boosters in flight.
The real prize of SpaceX’s technical achievement, however, is that it will now have access to lucrative government and military contracts for large satellites.
Musk told reporters Monday it was “game over” for legacy launch providers like ULA if the Falcon Heavy was successful. He described these other rockets as “like flying on an aircraft that are single use and you parachute out at your destination and the plane would crashland randomly somewhere.”
“As crazy at that sounds that's how the rocket business works,” Musk said.
In 2014, SpaceX sued the US government to end United Launch Alliance’s monopoly on military space contracts. Their argument was that they could provide similar services to the US government at a fraction of the cost. The problem was that many of the payloads that the military needs delivered to orbit required more lift power than SpaceX was able to deliver with its Falcon 9. If the company wanted to compete for these lucrative military contracts, it would have to build a bigger rocket.
Enter the Falcon Heavy, which is able to lift 141,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit (more than a Boeing 737 loaded with passengers), and lift over 4,000 pounds to escape velocity. For the last few months, SpaceX has hinted that it wants to use the Falcon Heavy to eventually slingshot two tourists around the Moon in its Dragon spacecraft by as early as the end of this year.
This claim was put to rest by Musk during a press conference on Monday, where he downplayed his intentions to certify the Falcon Heavy for human flight. Instead, he said SpaceX is choosing to place its human flight ambitions on the Big Fucking Rocket, a superheavy-class rocket that is twice as powerful as the Falcon Heavy.
“The BFR is designed to be able to launch every few hours, whereas the Falcon architecture is designed to be able to launch every few days in an optimal situation,” Musk said.
He added that development on the BFR spacecraft is currently underway, but didn’t name any timeline for its completion.
“We're looking at Falcon Heavy and thinking: 'It's a bit small,’” Musk told reporters Monday afternoon. “Right now, it looks like BFR development is moving quickly and it won't be necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for crewed spaceflight.”
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy for the future of spaceflight. By drastically lowering the costs of orbital and deep space access, SpaceX is accelerating the expansion of our species’ presence in the universe.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, is that the most direct benefactors of the Falcon Heavy will be the military and commercial interests. Human spaceflight still remains a distant goal for SpaceX, but the Falcon Heavy is a large milestone in that direction.
This post is being updated.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that the Starman spacesuit had sensors included. Musk said at a press conference after the launch that there were no sensors in the suit.