What to do after you’ve built and launched the world’s most powerful rocket?
Image: Daniel Oberhaus
On Tuesday afternoon, SpaceX successfully launched the most powerful operational rocket in the world. The Falcon Heavy rocket was used to send the personal convertible of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk into an orbit around the sun. The launch was technically flawless and visually arresting, but it was also emblematic of a changing of the guards in the space industry. SpaceX had effectively demonstrated that it was able to provide the same services as its only real competitor—the United Launch Alliance—for less than a quarter of the price.
SpaceX invited reporters to attend a press conference with Musk late Tuesday afternoon to discuss the launch and its implications. By the time Musk made it to the press conference, he was an hour late and looked completely exhausted. After quickly going over the technical specs from the launch, the topic of the press conference mostly turned to the future of SpaceX.
Here’s what to expect from the company in the coming months and years:
The only thing better than launching a rocket you made is launching that same rocket again. This is essentially what SpaceX plans to do come May, which is the earliest we might expect to see another Heavy flight. This Falcon Heavy won’t be reusing the main core booster from the first launch since this was lost after the booster slammed into the ocean at about 300 miles per hour on its return trip Tuesday afternoon, but it will feature some major upgrades.
Perhaps the most important upgrade is using side boosters from the fifth block of Falcon 9 rockets, rather than the fourth block boosters that carried the rocket on its maiden flight. (Falcon 9 “blocks” or batches are used to denote iterations of the Falcon Heavy based on technological innovations.) The fifth block of Falcon 9 rockets are considered the final iteration of the rocket and offer increased thrust and improved legs over the fourth block. For the next Falcon Heavy flight, Musk said that the rocket would carry the Arabsat-6 telecommunications satellite into orbit.
BIG FUCKING ROCKET
The Big Fucking Rocket, first announced in 2017, is going to be, well, fucking big. It’s main purpose is to launch a large spaceship into Earth orbit and beyond. The BFR is a critical step on the way towards Musk’s plans to colonize Mars insofar as it will likely be SpaceX’s first human-rated flight vehicle. According to Musk, “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.”
“Falcon Heavy gives me a lot of confidence that we can make BFR design work,” Musk told reporters on Tuesday evening.
The BFR will consist of one giant, 31-engine booster (the engines are Raptors, which are expected to produce up to five times the thrust of the Merlin engines in a Falcon) that will hoist commercial payloads and eventually humans into Low Earth Orbit and beyond.
Although SpaceX had initially hinted that the Falcon Heavy may be used to slingshot people around the moon, Musk backtracked on these comments at two press conferences this week. After seeing how rapidly that the BFR is progressing, Musk said it made more sense to certify the BFR for human spaceflight rather than the Heavy, since the BFR will be able to launch larger payloads and on a more rapid basis. Musk said that the first test flights of the BFR—small “hops” where the rocket flies a few miles into the air before returning to Earth—will occur early next year.
One of the original, and much hyped, use cases of the Falcon Heavy was to use the rocket to send crewed missions to the Moon in SpaceX’s flagship crew vehicle. Plans have since changed and it is unlikely that a Crew Dragon will ever sit atop a Falcon Heavy with humans inside the vehicle, Musk told reporters this week. Still, Musk has a six-launch contract with NASA to deliver crew to the International Space Station and said that he hopes to begin fulfilling this contract by the end of this year. The crew would fly to the ISS in a Crew Dragon perched on top of a Falcon 9. Before this can happen however, SpaceX needs to get the Falcon 9 rated for human flight. This is a years-long process that involves countless tests and successful technology demonstrations.
Together, all of these projects feed into SpaceX and Musk’s ultimate goal, which is being the first organization to place humans on Mars. Musk is still gunning for an ambitious 2022 uncrewed mission to the Red Planet and a crewed mission in 2024. It’s a longshot, but after watching the Falcon Heavy fly from Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, it seems a lot less improbable than it did before.