Musk “Giddy” About Falcon Heavy Test Launch Tomorrow

Musk “Giddy” About Falcon Heavy Test Launch Tomorrow

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said today that while he is usually stressed before a launch, he is “giddy and happy” as the first flight of his Falcon Heavy rocket is readied for tomorrow.  This is a test launch and for months he has been dampening expectations, but “we’ve done everything we could do to maximize the success of this mission” and “I feel at peace with that.”

Falcon Heavy is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA, at 1:30 pm ET Tuesday.  The launch window extends to 4:30 pm ET.  SpaceX will webcast the launch beginning 20 minutes before launch.

The rocket has three cores — essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together.  SpaceX routinely recovers Falcon 9 first stages and plans to recover all three of them tomorrow.  The two side boosters will return to land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station while the central core will land on an autonomous drone ship at sea.

Test launches typically carry ballast.  Musk said he did not want to launch anything boring, as ballast usually is, but instead the “silliest” thing possible.  That turned out to be his own cherry red Tesla Roadster.  (He also is the founder and CEO of Tesla.)  He tweeted photos of the Roadster inside the nosecone of the Falcon Heavy rocket on December 22.

Today he tweeted an animated profile of the launch and the landing of the three cores as well as deployment of the Roadster (with a surprise).

During a media teleconference today, however, he explained why the Roadster may never make it onto the planned trajectory into a heliocentric orbit.

One potential customer for the Falcon Heavy is the national security space community and he wants to demonstrate the capability to launch satellites directly into geostationary orbit (GEO).  Today they are launched into an intermediate transfer orbit and then raised into the final GEO orbit above the equator over days or weeks using onboard propulsion.  It would save a lot of time to be able to do a direct insertion.

To demonstrate that capability, the Falcon Heavy’s second stage will coast for six hours before the final burn to send the Roadster on its way.  During that time, the second stage and the Roadster will be subjected to the radiation environment of the Van Allen belts that encircle the Earth.  What effect the radiation will have on the second stage is unknown.  Conceivably it could damage it sufficiently that it would not make the final firing to send the Roadster on its way and it would be stranded in  low Earth orbit (LEO).

Assuming all goes well, however, the Roadster will end up in a heliocentric cycling orbit around the Earth and Mars for millions or perhaps a billion years, Musk said.  It could come close to Mars at some point, with an “extremely tiny” chance that it could hit the Red Planet.

The Roadster has three cameras aboard that will provide “epic views.”

Musk is intent on making humans a multi-planet species by sending people to live on Mars.   To that end, he is building a much larger rocket — the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) — and a “giant” spaceship to go with it.

Last year, he said he also planned to send people around the Moon — specifically two private citizens on a flight in 2018 using a Crew Dragon on a Falcon Heavy.

Today, however, he revealed a change in those plans.  Development of the BFR is proceeding more quickly than expected and he has “tabled” plans to human-rate the Falcon Heavy.  Instead, SpaceX will focus on the BFR for human spaceflight beyond LEO.  He did not say when the previously announced human flight around the Moon would take place.  He did say he expects “short hops” of the BFR spaceship next year, adding that is “aspirational.”

For the moment, getting Falcon Heavy off the launch pad is the focus of attention.  Musk has said for months that he hopes that if the worst happens and it explodes that it will be clear of the launch pad.  He explained today that not much will be left if it “lets loose” on the pad and it will a “real pain in the neck” to repair, a task that could take 8-12 months.

In terms of milestones, clearing the pad and getting through the transonic and maximum aerodynamic pressure (MaxQ) phases of the flight are “big ones,” and successful separation between the first and second stages would be a “big win.”

If the launch is successful, Falcon Heavy will be the biggest rocket on the planet right now, capable of placing 63.8 Metric Tons (MT) into LEO.  The United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, currently the largest rocket in the world, can place 28.4 MT into LEO.



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