Exuberant Musk Marvels at Falcon Heavy Success

Exuberant Musk Marvels at Falcon Heavy Success

An exuberant Elon Musk marveled at the successful launch of his Falcon Heavy rocket during a post-launch press conference this evening.  The founder and CEO of SpaceX, which built and launched the rocket, and of Tesla, which supplied the payload, told reporters it showed that “crazy things come true.”  As breathtaking as the launch and the landing of two of three boosters was, the view from the camera on the orbiting cherry red Tesla Roadster stole the show.   Unfortunately, the camera batteries will last for only 12 hours.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9s strapped together.   Each Falcon 9 has nine engines, so the launch today required the simultaneous firing of 27 engines — no mean feat.

SpaceX has pioneered the recovery and reuse of Falcon 9 first stages.  In fact, two of the three boosters used today were “flight proven” or “used” rockets.   Those were the two on the sides.   The central core was new and was the only one of the three not successfully recovered.

The two side boosters returned to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station accompanied by impressive sonic booms.  They landed seconds apart on adjacent pads — Landing Zone 1 and Landing Zone 2.

The central core was also supposed to land, in that case on an autonomous drone ship at sea.  It is the only part of the mission that did not go as planned.   At the press conference, Musk said that there was not enough fuel left to slow it down and it slammed into the water at 300 miles per hour just 300 feet from the ship.  The impact spewed shrapnel across the deck of the ship and damaged two of the ship’s thrusters. He cautioned, however, that account is based on preliminary information.

The second stage successfully completed two firings, placing the Tesla Roadster into a temporary Earth orbit.  After a six-hour coast, a third burn sent it on its way into a heliocentric orbit that will pass by Mars and Earth for millions or even a billion of years.  Musk was worried about the third burn because the second stage spent six hours in the Van Allen radiation belts that encircle the Earth.  What effects the radiation would have on the second stage were unknown, but apparently they did not affect the engine.

The cherry red Tesla Roadster served as ballast for the launch.  Musk said he did not want to use typical ballast mafteral, like concrete, because it is boring, so chose his own Telsa automobile instead.   He added a mannequin dressed in an actual SpaceX spacesuit that was designed for crew launches to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s commercial crew program.  Musk calls the mannequin “Starman” after the David Bowie song.

SpaceX installed three cameras on the Tesla that are sending back views of the car against the backdrop of the Earth.   The effect is incomparable — seeing an actual car with a spacesuited mannequin in the driver’s seat circling Earth.

Even Musk described it as looking “ridiculous and impossible.”

The batteries will die about 12 hours after launch, but the images are certain to be enduring.

The event was not just for showmanship, but to demonstrate a new launch capability.  Falcon Heavy is now the most capable rocket in the world by far.  It can place 63.8 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit (LEO), almost twice the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Delta IV Heavy at 28.4 MT.

The question is whether there is a business case for the rocket.

Musk is confident the market is there.  The national security space community is interested in the possibility of sending satellites directly into geostationary orbit (GEO) over the equator instead of into a transfer orbit and gradually reaching GEO as is done now.  That is what Musk demonstrated with the six-hour coast before firing the second stage for a third time.

Commercial customers also are interested.  Arabsat is already booked for a Falcon Heavy launch.  The  price for a Falcon Heavy launch is only $90 million, compared to $60 million for the smaller Falcon 9, both of which are lower than domestic and foreign competitors.

SpaceX invested its own internal funds to develop Falcon Heavy.  Musk said today the investment was “over half a billion” dollars, much more than he anticipated at the beginning and he contemplated cancelling the program three times.

Originally, he had said Falcon Heavy would be used to send humans around the Moon.  Yesterday, however, he revealed that he has “tabled” plans for human-rating Falcon Heavy.  He will use his next new, bigger rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), for human missions beyond low Earth orbit.

Last year, he announced that he would send two private citizens around the Moon this year.  Today, however, he said that he does not expect a full-up Earth orbital flight test of BFR for perhaps three to four years, with flights to the Moon shortly thereafter.

Today was Falcon Heavy’s day, however.  Praise and congratulations poured in from competitors and politicians alike.  Florida’s two Senators, Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R), and Vice President Mike Pence were among those tweeting congratulations from the political front.  Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), Tory Bruno (ULA) and Dennis Muilenburg (Boeing) sent theirs as well.


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