News / Science & Technology

Date Set for Launch of World’s Most Powerful Commercial Rocket

Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, speaks during a news conference in Washington, DC. to announce SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket should be ready for use by the end of 2012, April 5, 2011
Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, speaks during a news conference in Washington, DC. to announce SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket should be ready for use by the end of 2012, April 5, 2011
Jessica Berman

An American commercial aerospace company has set the launch date for its new heavy-lift rocket, which will become the world’s most powerful space launch vehicle. The rocket, called the Falcon Heavy, will be able to carry twice the payload of NASA’s 30-year-old space shuttle, eventually replacing the retiring US space agency vehicle to ferry cargo to the international space station.

Private rocket builder Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, will launch its new heavy lift vehicle, called the Falcon Heavy, in a demonstration flight at the end of 2012.

The powerful rocket will produce 1.7 million kilograms of thrust at lift-off. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says the Falcon Heavy will be able to loft 53,000 kilograms (117,000 pounds) of cargo into orbit, about twice the lift capability of NASA’s space shuttle.

"117,000 pounds is more than a fully loaded Boeing 737 with 136 passengers, luggage and fuel in orbit.  So that is really humongous.  It’s more payload capability in history apart from the Saturn V," he said.

The Saturn 5 was NASA’s heavy lift, expendable rocket used in the Apollo program that took astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it remains the most powerful operational space rocket ever built.  

But Musk is hoping to change that, telling reporters in a briefing that SpaceX is designing the Falcon Heavy with an eye toward not just earth-orbiting missions but also trips to the Moon or Mars. "It has so much capability, so much more capability than any other vehicle that I think we can start to contemplate, realistically contemplate missions like a Mars sample return which requires a tremendous amount of lift capability because you have to send a lander to Mars that has enough propellant to return to Earth," he said.

SpaceX has designed the Falcon Heavy to carry cargo at a cost of about $2,200 per kilogram, about one-tenth the cost of hauling a payload to orbit on the space shuttle.  The average price tag for a launch aboard the company’s heavy rocket will be around $100 million.

NASA has already struck a $1.6 billion deal with SpaceX to use its smaller Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to ferry cargo to the International Space Station after the last space shuttle retires mid-year.

Musk says the company hopes to be able to carry astronauts to the space station in about three years.

Eventually, SpaceX is planning to conduct ten launches per year each with the expendable Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy rockets.

With the demise of NASA’s space shuttle program, commercial companies are scrambling to fill a void to deliver satellites and other heavy equipment to outer space.  In addition to its deal with the US space agency, SpaceX has already secured $2.5 billion in contracts to launch satellites into orbit.

Another private rocket maker, United Launch Alliance, conducted a successful launch of its heavy rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, in January.  A third private space contractor, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is developing the experimental Taurus II medium-class rocket to resupply the international space station.  Orbital’s fleet of smaller rockets has conducted 55 space launch missions since 1990, placing over 115 satellites into orbit in the last 18 years.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is comprised of a main rocket with two Falcon 9 boosters strapped on either side, giving it a triple barrel appearance. The Falcon Heavy has twice the lift capability of the Delta IV.

The first test launch of the Falcon Heavy will take place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with subsequent lift-offs planned for Cape Canaveral in Florida.

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