On April 5, 2011, Elon Musk introduced what would become the world’s most powerful operational rocket: The Falcon Heavy.
From the get-go, Falcon Heavy promised governmental and commercial payloads to Geostationary Orbit for a fraction of the conventional cost. “Falcon Heavy can address the largest governmental and commercial satellites,” Elon said, “As well as open up new market opportunities for satellites and spacecraft that simply cannot be carried to space by the currently operational rockets”
“I expect to see new opportunities arising because of Falcon Heavy.”
“From a cost standpoint — which is critically important because launch costs have been steadily rising over the years — Falcon Heavy represents a huge economic advantage. Falcon Heavy costs one-third of a flight as Delta IV Heavy, but carries twice as much payload to orbit.”
But it wasn’t the only goal. SpaceX’s ambitions have always been for humanity to reach Mars, and it was clear that a low-cost superheavy class rocket is required for humanity to get there sustainably. With Falcon Heavy, the company could have the capability to place over 64 metric tonnes to low earth orbit and over 17 tonnes to Mars.
The development of this rocket seemed simple enough at first — just join three, already operational Falcon 9 first stages, and it should be good to go. The fairing and the second stage are the same as the Falcon 9, and with minimal changes to the Ground Support Equipment, the company aimed to reduce development time and operational costs. It was planned to get Falcon Heavy orbital in 2013.
However — as always — development proved a lot more challenging. In July 2017, Elon said, “It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought.
We were pretty naïve about that.”
Even though Falcon 9 and Heavy share the same flight heritage, there were many crucial changes to the Heavy which needed redesigns and further development. This included developing the booster separation system — the mechanism which separates the side boosters from the central booster in flight — and strengthening the center core, which includes thicker tank walls and other minute changes to securely latch the boosters.
This particular change turned out to be quite a challenge and caused major delays, which were exacerbated by two major Falcon 9 anomalies, which required all engineering resources to be dedicated to failure analysis, halting flight operations for many months.
While SpaceX was in the process of building the world’s largest operational rocket, NASA was also developing a superheavy launch vehicle, based on Space Shuttle’s supply chain: the Space Launch System (SLS). Under NASA’s Artemis program, the Space Launch System plans to return humans to the Moon. Subcontracted to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, NASA planned to get SLS orbital by December 2017.
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When comparing NASA’s “Mega Moon Rocket” to Falcon Heavy, many were quick to point out Heavy’s low cost, however, others were skeptical SpaceX could even pull off such a feat of engineering — the first rocket of this size developed by a commercial company.
Then-NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, a former Shuttle astronaut, said in an interview in 2014, “Let’s be very honest again. We don’t have a commercially available heavy-lift vehicle. Falcon Heavy may someday come about. It’s on the drawing board right now. SLS is real. You've seen it down at Michoud. We're building the core stage. We have all the engines done, ready to be put on the test stand at Stennis. I don't see any hardware for a Falcon Heavy, except that he's going to take three Falcon 9s and put them together and that becomes the Heavy. It's not that easy in rocketry.”
Four years later, on February 6th, 2018, after spending a mere $500 Million on development, SpaceX proved to NASA, Congress, the Department of Defense, and the whole world that commercial companies can indeed launch heavy payloads to orbit.
Falcon Heavy's first launch demonstration went perfectly, delivering Elon Musk’s Roadster to orbit, and performing a picture-perfect simultaneous booster landing at Landing Zone 1 and 2. In contrast, NASA has spent over $23 billion on the SLS, which is still plagued with issues after a partial wet dress rehearsal, and to this day has yet to launch.
It was a big win, Not just for SpaceX who went on to win a huge number of contracts from governmental organizations, but also for the scientific community as it became cheaper than ever to send a large payload to orbit, or into deep space.
When NASA awarded SpaceX a launch contract for Europa Clipper, it saved the space agency and the taxpayer over $500 Million. Clipper was previously scheduled to launch onboard the Space Launch System, mostly because of pressure from congress which we wrote extensively about in Supercluster.
In 2019, NASA’s Inspector General reported that it would cost about $726 million for SLS to launch Clipper, after accounting for the fact that SLS could get the probe to Jupiter faster. In contrast, SpaceX was asking a mere $178 million. As one can guess, most of the drop in price is thanks to SpaceX’s reusable boosters. Falcon Heavy didn’t even exist when the Europa mission was planned, but now it’ll be launching NASA’s premiere science mission and largest to one of the most promising destinations in the search for life in the solar system.
The impact of Falcon Heavy’s test flight went beyond a technology demonstration. The launch of the Tesla Roadster with Starman on board along with the names of thousands of SpaceX engineers had a substantial impact on society, likes of which haven’t been seen since Apollo 11 and the first launch of the Space Shuttle. Tens of thousands of people packed Florida's Space Coast while hundreds of journalists and photographers were on-site at Kennedy Space Center for the first time since the Space Shuttle era.
SpaceX self-funded the development of Falcon Heavy. It turned out to be a good investment. After three successful launches, Heavy has secured a streak of high-profile launches from the DoD, NASA, and other commercial companies.
Over 5 Falcon Heavy launches have been scheduled for this year, with the United States Space Force claiming 3 out of 5.
The first is USSF-44, which is currently scheduled to launch in June, will attempt to land two boosters simultaneously on two drone ships for the first time, stationed off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. This mission was originally scheduled to launch in August of 2020 but has been continually delayed, mostly because of payload processing by the Air Force. Not much is known about this payload, but we know there will be a couple of satellites onboard, a larger unconfirmed satellite, and a micro-satellite named TETRA-1.
Next up is USSF-53 which is SpaceX’s first competitively won launch contract for the United States Space Force. Costing over $130 Million, SpaceX’s bid beat United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. It is scheduled to launch in October. The last mission is USSF-67, currently scheduled for November of this year.
Apart from the military, Falcon Heavy will be launching NASA’s Psyche Orbiter to a metallic asteroid named 16 Psyche. The primary aim of this mission is to study the origin of plenary cores by studying the metallic core of the asteroid. This will be Falcon Heavy’s first launch to deep space for NASA. It is currently scheduled for August 1.
Falcon Heavy also has a commercial launch under its belt for the Geostationary satellite communication company ViaSat. The company will launch ViaSat-3 Americas, which is a class of Ka-band satellites, which is expected to deliver more than 1 -Terabit per second of network capacity to the Americas. Onboard the same launch is a secondary payload by Astrantis Space Technologies named Arcturus. This telecommunication satellite aims to provide high-speed internet to remote areas in Alaska.
Falcon Heavy might be able to secure lucrative government contracts, but SpaceX realized quite early in development that in order to achieve “airline” type operations — something no one has achieved in spaceflight history — they will need to build and design everything over from scratch. Full and rapid reusability must be built into the system from the ground up.
Falcon Heavy is inherently based on the Falcon 9, which limits its launch rate, mostly due to the production schedules of expendable Merlin second stage engines and the turnaround time for each booster. SpaceX has achieved 6 days of booster turnaround time with the latest Starlink launch, and even if they achieve the maximum for the second stage production and minimum for the booster turnaround time, it will be nowhere near the airline-like operations SpaceX teams are planning to achieve. To land and launch again in mere hours, they would need an entirely new rocket. With over 3.27 times the thrust of the Falcon Heavy, this rocket — when it achieves orbit — would have the capability to place over 150 metric tonnes to the low earth orbit at a fraction of the cost of even the very affordable Falcon 9.
Originally named Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), then later renamed Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS), Big “Falcon” Rocket (BFR) and then finally Starship, this is SpaceX’s next-generation answer to rapid reusability. Once operational, it will be the largest and the most powerful rocket developed by Humanity, surpassing the thrust of the Saturn V by a factor of 2. If it works, Starship will be poised to achieve ultra-fast turnaround time and fulfill SpaceX’s ambition to explore deep space.
Starship has been on SpaceX’s backend for quite a few years. Initially, carbon fiber was considered the choice of material and their teams (unsuccessfully) tested large composite tanks. But the adjustment of material to stainless steel changed everything. It allowed SpaceX to rapidly and iteratively develop this superheavy launch vehicle. Unlike the Falcons, SpaceX had much more flexibility and capital to build Starship. The company settled in a village in the South of Texas — named Boca Chica — to develop, build and hopefully soon launch the rocket that could take more humans and cargo much further for far cheaper. SpaceX dubbed Starship's build and launch site "Starbase" and will build a visitor's center for future passengers.
Over the years, SpaceX built and tested different Starship and Superheavy prototypes, each slightly more sophisticated than its predecessor. They went from a sloppily welded prototype to a fully-assembled Starship prototype in just under 2 years.
Starship, and its booster stage, Superheavy, is powered by an engine also designed from scratch, named the Raptor. It is a full-flow staged combustion engine, powered by Liquid Methane and super chilled Liquid Oxygen and hence is the most complex engine in the world. The full flow cycle means that both exhausts from the methane-rich and the oxygen-rich pre-burners are directed to the main combustion chamber, increasing the fuel efficiency and lowering operating temperatures of the pre-burners.
This — in theory — should allow long-term reuse, less turnaround time and lower maintenance overall. However, this engine cycle brings an immense complexity to the engine itself, so much so that this cycle has been adopted by only 2 engines, the Russian RD-270 and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Integrated powerhead demonstrator. Both of them never left the test stand.
Currently, SpaceX is still a ways out from its first orbital launch attempt, as it awaits approval from the FAA for the Boca Chica launch site, and receives all the second-generation Raptor, named Raptor 2, for flight.
But all this raises the question — once Starship is fully up and running, what will be the fate of Falcon Heavy?
Elon has consistently stated that Starship will replace the Falcon family of rockets in the future, but that future is still far-fetched. Falcon 9 will be launching for many years to come, as it is the only rocket, (apart from maybe a future Altas V,) to launch a crew to low earth orbit from American soil. As for Falcon Heavy, it’ll continue to fly governmental missions which require immaculate launch history and a lot of experience with operating the vehicle, even if the commercial heavy-lift missions are transferred over to Starship.
Having only launched thrice, the reign of Falcon Heavy may just be starting. Even as a rapidly developing Starship looms on the horizon.