Update: The photo of a Falcon Heavy nosecone posted on Instagram on August 30th was actually more than 12 months old, dating back to early preparations for the rocket’s inaugural February 2018 launch. As such, no new hardware has actually been spied arriving in Florida for Falcon Heavy’s second launch, likely sometime in early 2019.
SpaceX’s second-ever Falcon Heavy rocket appears to be entering into the (very) early stages of hardware preparation and integration in anticipation of its second launch, expected to occur as early as December 2018 or January 2019. The apparent arrival of one of the new rocket’s side booster nosecones at Kennedy Space Center – captured by local NASA engineer Hampton Black (Instagram: @spacecoast_hampton) – is a strong indicator that SpaceX is already gearing up for the production and launch of the next serial Falcon Heavy, this time composed entirely of upgraded Block 5 boosters. Of note, the individual transport of a Falcon Heavy nosecone to Kennedy Space Center bucks the trend observed during the transport of the first rocket’s two side boosters, both of which were shipped to Florida with nosecones already installed. Why might SpaceX be shipping a new Falcon Heavy nosecone to Florida separately, rather than atop a Falcon booster? The most obvious explanation happens to be that SpaceX is planning on reusing a flight-proven Falcon 9 Block 5 booster for Falcon Heavy’s next launch, perhaps even a booster already residing in Florida (B1047, B1049, and potentially B1051). This should come as no surprise at all, given the inherent disruption any dedicated Falcon Heavy booster production – 3X the effort for one launch – would have on single-booster Falcon 9 manufacturing. Thanks to the extraordinary loads placed on FH center boosters, those will likely need to have a separate design dedicated to Falcon Heavy, but statements from CEO Elon Musk after the rocket’s successful February 2018 debut indicate that Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters will be interchangeable as side booster with minimal rework.
Inter-booster connection hardware will certainly need to be installed on the outside of any Falcon Heavy-focused Falcon 9 booster, but the only other major hardware modification apparently needed would be the replacement of a booster’s Falcon 9 interstage (wrapped in a black heat-resistant material on Block 5 vehicles) with a Falcon Heavy nosecone. This is likely why a lone nosecone has been transported to the Cape – it might seem rather premature with Falcon Heavy’s next launch potentially five or more months away, but it’s likely that SpaceX integration engineers and technicians want to physically verify that new procedures work as expect and that the new hardware fit meets SpaceX’s tolerances. Normally, the vast majority of that final integration and verification work would be conducted in situ at the company’s Hawthorne factory, where the Falcon 9 or Heavy booster simply would not ship to McGregor or a launch pad until everything checked out as expected. Rather than shipping a flight-proven Block 5 booster back to Hawthorne or McGregor, SpaceX might instead be able to much more easily ship just the components that need to be swapped out in order to modify a Falcon 9 booster for Falcon Heavy side core duties. If that can, in fact, be done, it should serve to dramatically lower the previously massive work-hour gaps between Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 launches, potentially making Heavy a much more viable and workhorse-esque rocket for SpaceX and the company’s present and prospective customers.
For prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket recovery fleet check out our brand new LaunchPad and LandingZone newsletters!