SpaceX, the famous upstart startup rocket company founded on PayPal hecamillionaire Elon Musk's internet fortune, has announced details of its latest and mightiest launcher - which will be the most powerful rocket in the world.
“Falcon Heavy will arrive at our Vandenberg, California, launch complex by the end of next year with liftoff to follow soon thereafter," says Musk. "First launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014.”
The "Falcon Heavy" formally announced by Musk yesterday consists essentially of three Falcon 9 lower stages fixed together side by side with a single upper stage attached above the centre unit and payload on top. Each of the Falcon 9s has nine of SpaceX's proprietary "Merlin" engines arranged in a three-by-three grid at its base, hence the name. The Falcon Heavy might as easily have been dubbed the Falcon 27.
The single-core Falcon 9 has already flown, sending up a "Dragon" capsule into orbit which then successfully came in to land in a Pacific splashdown, marking a first for a private company - and an achievement equalled by only a handful of government entities. The Dragon is intended to deliver first cargo and then perhaps astronauts to the International Space Station in the post-Shuttle era.
Musk says that his new Falcon Heavy will be able to deliver no less than 54 tonnes of cargo to orbit, doubling the performance of the existing Delta IV Heavy, the biggest US rocket currently on offer - but at "less than one third the cost" of the incumbent big-boy.
According to SpaceX:
The 2012 budget for four Air Force launches is $1.74B, which is an average of $435M per launch. Falcon 9 is offered on the commercial market for $50-60M and Falcon Heavy is offered for $80-$125M. Unlike our competitors, this price includes all non-recurring development costs and on-orbit delivery of an agreed upon mission. For government missions, NASA has added mission assurance and additional services to the Falcon 9 for less than $20M.
Musk is known to have his eye on the lucrative business of sending up spy satellites for the military and the intelligence community: there is potentially more money to be earned there than working for NASA.
All the same, SpaceX remains true to its original vision of lowering the costs of access to space as a means towards boosting exploration. The Falcon 9 and now Falcon Heavy are built to conform with NASA standards for manned missions, including such things as triply redundant avionics and structural margins 40 per cent above flight loads.
Dragon capsules atop Falcon 9s could, the company contends, easily carry replacement crew up to the ISS in place of the Soyuz ships which will be the only option once the Shuttles retire. The Falcon Heavy might even carry "interplanetary spacecraft". One notes that a Heavy could on the face of it be used to launch an "Orion" Crew Exploration Vehicle of the sort intended under the Bush administration for manned missions to the Moon and Mars.
Presidents Bush and Obama were unable to get sufficient funding from Congress for these ambitious "Constellation" plans as they stood, and thus they were largely axed. The Orion itself was reprieved by Obama at the last minute.
Such far-flung missions would also require additional modules such as lander ships, supplies etc. It was anticipated under Constellation that these would be sent up separately atop a mighty Ares V heavy lift rocket, while the Orion and its astronauts went up on a smaller man-rated launcher.