More than a decade after its 2005 public conception, SpaceX is closer than ever to the first launch Falcon Heavy, the company’s newest rocket. Earlier this afternoon, the vehicle was aiming for its first static fire test, in which all 27 of its engines would be ignited (nearly) simultaneously in order to test procedures and the rocket itself. This attempt was sadly scrubbed, but only after the vehicle apparently completed a successful wet dress rehearsal, which saw Falcon Heavy fully loaded with propellant. According to Orlando’s News 13, the attempt was scrubbed only after one of eight hold-down clamps showed signs of bugs.
While Falcon Heavy is not explicitly critical for SpaceX’s near-term launch business and its loftier future goals, the development and operation of such a massive launch vehicle will likely serve as a strong foundation as the company transitions more aggressively into the design, engineering, and manufacture of its still-larger BFR series of rocket boosters and upper stages. Falcon Heavy stands approximately as tall as Falcon 9 at around 70 m (230 ft), but features three times the thrust and a little less than three times the weight of SpaceX’s workhorse rocket. With 27 Merlin 1D engines to Falcon 9’s namesake nine, Falcon Heavy’s 22,800 kN (5,000,000 lbf) of thrust is a nearly inconceivably amount of power, equivalent to twenty Airbus A380 passenger jets at full throttle.
Why is Falcon Heavy important?
If SpaceX manages to pull off Falcon Heavy as a successful and reliable launch vehicle on the order of its reasonably successful Falcon 9, BFR may well be an easier vehicle to develop and operate, thanks to its single-core design. As Musk himself has discussed over the last year or so, the problem of safely and reliably distributing the thrust of Heavy’s side cores to the center core was unexpectedly difficult, as were the issues of igniting all 27 Merlin 1Ds and safely separating the side cores while in flight. Ultimately, the payload improvement (while in a fully reusable mode of operation) was quite small, particularly for the geostationary missions that make up essentially all prospective Falcon Heavy customer missions.
The additional complexity of recovery and refurbishing three separate Falcon 9 boosters almost simultaneously likely serves to only worsen the vehicle’s potential payoff, although the upcoming Block 5 iteration of Falcon 9 may partially improve the vehicle’s ease of operation. If Block 5 is indeed as reusable as SpaceX intends to make it, then a handful of Block 5 Falcon Heavy vehicles could presumably maintain a decent launch cadence for the vehicle without requiring costly and time-consuming shipping all over the continental US.
Nevertheless, the (hopefully successful) experience that will follow the launch and recovery operation of a super heavy-lift launch vehicle (SHLV) with ~30 first stage engines will be invaluable for SpaceX’s interplanetary goals. While BFR will be free of the complexity Falcon Heavy’s triple-core first stage added, it is still a massive vehicle that absolutely dwarfs anything SpaceX has attempted before. BFR in its 2017 iteration would mass around three times that of Falcon Heavy and feature 30 Raptor engines capable of approximately 53,000 kN (12,000,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff, around 2.5x that of Heavy. Many, many other features mean that BFR and particularly BFS will be extraordinarily difficult to realize: BFS alone will be treading into truly unprecedented areas of spaceflight with the scale, longevity, and reusability it is intended to achieve while comfortably ferrying dozens of astronauts to and from Mars and the Moon.
However, the scale of BFR is equivalent to that of the famous Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s. In other words, while still dumbfoundingly massive and unprecedented in the modern era, rockets at the scale of BFR do in fact have a precedent of success, which lends the effort considerable plausibility, at least at proof-of-concept level. As of September 2017, Elon Musk suggested that SpaceX was aiming to begin construction of the first BFS (Big ____ Spaceship) by the end of Q2 2018, a truly Muskian deadline that probably wont hold. Still, if construction of the first prototype begins at any point in 2018, it will bode well for SpaceX’s aggressive timelines.
In the meantime, BFR’s precursor Falcon Heavy has effectively completed its first wet dress rehearsal, although the static fire attempt was scrubbed for the day. This is understandable for such a complex and untested vehicle, especially after SpaceX’s exceptionally quick modifications to Pad 39A. While unofficial, word is that an issue with one of the Transport/Erector/Launcher’s (TEL) eight separate launch clamps caused the scrub. Those launch clamps ensure that the massive vehicle would stay put during a static fire, and the status of those clamps would be especially important during such an unusually long static fire of such a powerful rocket.
Stay tuned for updates on SpaceX’s upcoming launches and Falcon Heavy’s next static fire attempt, likely within the next several days. The vehicle’s inaugural launch date is effectively up in the air until the static fire has been successfully completed, but as of yesterday SpaceX was understood to be targeting January 26th. Delays are to be expected.