If you thought the Superbowl was a big deal, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Tomorrow, the world will be gripped by the biggest rocket to launch in more than a generation – and despite some teething issues, it heralds a bright and exciting future in spaceflight.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1.30pm EST (6.30pm GMT) at the earliest tomorrow, February 6. The rocket will have a 2.5-hour launch window, with a backup launch date scheduled for February 7.
Inside the rocket will be CEO Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster car blaring out David Bowie's Space Oddity, being sent beyond the orbital plane of Mars.
Falcon Heavy will be the biggest rocket to launch (in terms of payload it can lift) since the final launch of the Saturn V rocket in 1973. Capable of taking 64,000 kilograms (140,000 pounds) of cargo to orbit, more than twice its nearest competitor – the Delta IV Heavy – at one quarter the cost, it is being billed as a historic moment in commercial spaceflight.
There’s a decent chance the rocket’s inaugural launch will be delayed beyond those dates, owing to its complexity and importance. At the moment, though, weather conditions look pretty good, and the rocket passed a routine static fire test with flying colors.
Whether it attempts to fly this week or later, this is a launch that has been anticipated in the space community for years. Falcon Heavy was first unveiled back in April 2011 by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to just a handful of reporters, with an anticipated first launch in 2013. After five years of delays, a crowd of half a million – and many more online around the world – are expected in Florida for the launch.
When it was first announced, that huge lifting capability coupled with the low cost had a lot of people excited. Since then, the rocket has lost a bit of its appeal, with just four upcoming launches scheduled.
“Less than two years ago, internal company documents projected a total of as many as 17 Falcon Heavy launches from 2017 to the end of 2019,” notes the Wall Street Journal.
One factor is that as technology has improved, satellites have shrunk. Rockets like SpaceX’s existing Falcon 9 are more than big enough for many commercial companies, with even smaller launch companies arriving on the scene.
As such, Falcon Heavy doesn’t have a huge line-up of customers. It’s possible it could be used to take astronauts to the Moon, quite timely considering NASA has recently shifted focus from Mars to lunar exploration. It could also be used to launch science missions to deep space destinations, icy moons like Europe and Enceladus for example.
“Having a rocket like the Heavy, which could significantly reduce travel time to ocean worlds, could help increase the turnaround time to just a few years,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy for The Planetary Society, told Ars Technica.
Musk may be touting this capability on the first launch with the rocket’s payload. By sending his car to Mars orbit, he's sending a pretty clear signal that the Falcon Heavy can do what only a few other rockets can – reach deep space. While it's some classic Musk showmanship, it's also a demonstration of Falcon Heavy's ability to go to Mars, the Moon, or elsewhere.
“This could make the whole Trump administration initiative to go back to the Moon economically affordable,” Charles Miller, president of space consulting firm NexGen Space LLC, told The Verge.
It’s also the first in a new era of heavy-lift rockets that we’re expecting in the next years. NASA is developing its own huge rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which eclipses the Falcon Heavy in size but is much more expensive. Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin, meanwhile, is developing its own New Glenn rocket, slightly less powerful than the Falcon Heavy. And Russia also has its eyes on a new heavy-lift rocket.
Musk has complicated matters somewhat by announcing a new rocket in September 2017 called the BFR (Big F*cking Rocket). With more than twice the lifting power of the Falcon Heavy, and a proposed (if somewhat unlikely) first launch in 2022, the BFR has been billed as the replacement for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
More than anything, however, this launch of Falcon Heavy should be seen as symbolic. It’s garnered excitement that arguably hasn’t been seen since the days of the Space Shuttle, and its immense power will make for one hell of a show if everything goes to plan – or, perhaps, even if it doesn’t.
For anyone under the age of 45, this is the biggest rocket launched in a lifetime. It may not have people lining up to use it, but it certainly serves as a reminder that for comparatively low cost, we can still do mighty things.
Wherever you are tomorrow, make sure you tune in for the launch – which you can watch here or live on our Facebook page. Once again, SpaceX is about to shake-up the launch industry – and who knows where that might take us.