While touring Florida’s Kennedy Space Center by bus earlier this morning (January 8), several spaceflight fans captured SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rolling out to Pad 39A for the second time ever. Following a basic fit check and photo opportunity at the launch pad in the last week of 2017, the launch vehicle now appears to be prepped and ready for its first wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and static fire test.
If all goes well during the wet dress rehearsal’s propellant loading tests, an admittedly less than guaranteed outcome, then the WDR will likely translate into a momentous occasion for the massive rocket: the first-ever simultaneous ignition of all three of its integrated first stages and their 27 Merlin 1D engines. While relatively unique to SpaceX, the company has made a habit of testing each and every new Falcon 9 first stage with two full-up static fire ignitions, one at McGregor, Texas and the other at the vehicle’s given launch pad. Following the destructive failure of Falcon 9 during a September 2016 static fire test, SpaceX further upped their cautious procedures by removing the payload for all future static fires, lest the customer request that it remain integrated for the sake of time savings.
Unsurprisingly, no customers have since chosen to bypass SpaceX’s new risk-reducing procedures. Falcon Heavy will clearly be a return to older methods, delineated by the clear presence of the second stage and Tesla Roadster payload at its top, although this decision was almost undoubtedly driven by the fact that the payload is in no real way valuable or even important for the “customer,” SpaceX itself. The Tesla Roadster is more or less a stand-in for the traditional boilerplate satellite (read: hunk of dead metal) often launched during the inaugural flights of new rockets. The best recent example is the 2004 inaugural launch of Boeing’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, similar to Falcon Heavy in the sense that it also features a triple-core first stage. Its first launch carried a payload that was quite literally a 6000 kg (13500 lb) piece of metal paired with a number of sensors used to gather vibrational data.
Somewhat fittingly, Delta IV Heavy is aiming to conduct its own launch within the next week or so, providing the East Coast with back to back launches of the world’s two largest operational rockets. Still, as SpaceX and Elon Musk have repeatedly mentioned, Falcon Heavy is far more capable than even Delta IV Heavy: while Falcon Heavy is noticeably shorter, narrower, and thinner than Delta, it weighs almost twice as much and will sport nearly 2.5 times the thrust at liftoff.
Delta IV Heavy’s launches are undoubtedly spectacles to behold, particularly given explosive launch procedures, but the vehicle is entirely expendable, whereas Falcon Heavy will attempt recovery of all three of its first stages, and may eventually allow SpaceX to test technology that will enable second stage recovery, as well.
Falcon Heavy will launch a somewhat livelier version of Delta IV Heavy’s boilerplate mass-simulator with the Tesla Roadster, and the main goal is quite clearly to test the vehicle’s ability to send a payload into a trans-Martian injection (TMI) orbit, albeit likely without an actual injection into orbit around Mars at the other end. Even if the payload is somewhat silly, a successful launch to TMI would be the most literal step yet made by the commercial space company along its path to Mars. If this week’s propellant loading and static fire go as planned, launch will likely follow within a week or so – maybe two weeks given the new and unpredictable nature of testing what is more or less a prototype rocket.
Falcon Heavy goes vertical pic.twitter.com/uG1k0WISv1
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 5, 2018
Falcon Heavy can be expected to go vertical at the pad within the next 12-24 hours at most, and static fire will follow soon after. After a highly successful evening photographing the January 7 launch of Falcon 9 with Zuma, Teslarati’s launch photographer Tom Cross will be attempting to photograph the momentous test fire as it happens, and you can follow along live on Teslarati’s Instagram.