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Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Launch Most Powerful Rocket Yet

Falcon Heavy to launch in January.

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Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with a singular vision: to help humans expand their presence throughout the solar system. The private spaceflight company’s ambitions have crystallized over the last few years in the form of an interplanetary transport system concept to start ferrying passengers to Mars in just a decade. And while that plan has been refined to something more feasible this year, SpaceX has yet to launch a single mission to deep space or even a mission with a human crew.

That will begin to change in a matter of weeks. SpaceX is preparing for its most daring feat yet: the launch of the most powerful rocket in operation, the triple-booster Falcon Heavy rocket. The launch vehicle is comprised of 27 Merlin engines and three of the firm’s workhorse Falcon 9 rockets that have helped them complete a staggering 16 launches in 2017––putting them nose to nose with the Russians for amount of launches this year.

“There’s no exact liftoff date yet for Falcon Heavy but the company plans to fire up its engines for a test in December with the first flight launching a couple of weeks later in January. SpaceX will launch Falcon Heavy from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center––the same pad Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong flew from to land on the moon. 

The Falcon Heavy will dwarf the power of the current most powerful rocket by double and be able to lift the equivalent of a fully-fueled 737 airliner filled with passengers, to orbit. The new rocket will be capable of launching cargo missions to Mars and human missions around the moon when coupled with SpaceX’s upcoming Crew Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX will also be using Crew Dragon to shuttle NASA astronauts to ISS late next year.

Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful launch vehicle in operation.(SpaceX)

In 2017, SpaceX has more than doubled its previous record for launches in a single year adding to a historic run filled with notable accomplishments. They managed to refurbish a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster and re-launch it on an entirely new mission three separate times this year. And yes, those boosters were recovered again.

SpaceX also managed to recover, refurbish, and relaunch its Dragon cargo spacecraft that is used to send supplies to the space station for NASA. When the federal space agency allowed them to use the same vehicle twice for a cargo mission, SpaceX became the first entity to fly a reusable spacecraft to the orbiting laboratory since the retirement of the space shuttle.

In SpaceX’s earlier days, they became the first to fly a privately-owned spacecraft to the space station––an event that helped launch a new era of commercial spaceflight. Today, SpaceX is valued at 21 billion dollars and that stems from a full upcoming launch manifest and a new relationship with the military––a relationship they fought hard for, suing their competition for Air Force bidding rights. SpaceX has launched two covert national security missions this year and the Air Force has shown interest in using the company’s reusable boosters in the future.

It’s important to remember that in the 60 years of aerospace history, no other company or government has managed to fly an orbital rocket on a mission and successfully recover it. SpaceX has landed its rocket boosters on their twin bi-coastal drone ships and on ground at Cape Canaveral 19 times since December 2015.

Can SpaceX cap their best year ever with a successful test flight of their new deep space rocket? Elon Musk made some comments this past summer that has some uneasy about the  Falcon Heavy’s inaugural flight and insisted that it wasn’t as straight-forward as strapping three rockets together for a launch.

“I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly. I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it’s not going to cause damage,” he said when floating the idea of an explosion during flight. “I would consider that a win, honestly. And yeah. Major pucker factor is the only way to describe it.” Musk argued that firing 27 engines at the same time is complex and that “there’s a lot that could go wrong.” There will be no customer payload on the launch, just personal effects, a mass simulator, and cameras to film its orbital flight.

If the launch is successful, SpaceX will attempt to fly home all three rocket boosters. Two will come soaring back to Cape Canaveral for a simultaneous touchdown at Landing Zone 1 while the third will rendezvous with the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ droneship parked in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX will likely opt for a daytime launch to maximize PR value and provide a visual feast for social media.

The Falcon Heavy test-flight will mark SpaceX’s breach into deep space travel beyond the International Space Travel and beyond where they currently place commercially-owned satellites––finally putting them on the road toward Mars. SpaceX has also announced that they will launch two “brave” (and wealthy) tourists around the moon atop the Falcon Heavy soon which could be the first time humans travelled that far since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

What comes after Falcon Heavy is what will enable SpaceX to colonize new worlds: the multi-purpose “Big F-cking Rocket,” which will utilize all the technology they have refined over the past few years. The propulsive landing of the Falcon 9 booster, the automatic navigation and docking of the Dragon spacecraft, and the what they will learn from the Falcon Heavy’s deep space missions. SpaceX will wrap everything they’ve learned about reusability and apply that to the new ship which they need to be able to fly back from Mars.

SpaceX plans to discontinue its entire line of current vehicles (and even Falcon Heavy) to divert resources into its multi-purpose passenger ship, and aim for a human mission to Mars in the mid to late 2020s.

Robin Seemangal has been reporting from the newsroom at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the past three years with bylines in the New York Observer, Popular Science and Wired.