The maiden flight of Space Exploration Technologies Corp’s larger and more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket will be a success if it doesn’t blow up on the launch pad, according to Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk. “This is a test mission, so we don’t want to set expectations of perfection,” Musk said on a call with reporters Monday ahead of the planned demonstration flight from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “I would consider it a win if it just clears the pad.”
The new rocket, which is expected to take off as early as 1:30 pm local time on Tuesday, is a reusable ‘super heavy’ launch vehicle that will allow the closely held company to bid on heavier commercial and government payloads. It has double the capacity of its closest competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. And competitors are watching closely, with Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin LLC and ULA’s Tory Bruno both wishing Musk good luck via Twitter as tourists swarm Florida’s space coast.
In terms of design, Falcon Heavy is basically three of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. While one Falcon 9 has nine Merlin engines in its first stage, Falcon Heavy has 27. The Hawthorne, California-based company, whose driving principle is to design rockets for reusability, will attempt to land all three rocket cores for re-use in a later launch and posted an animation on Monday of what the mission could look like.
If the demonstration flight goes well, Musk said SpaceX would plan to fly its first mission for a paying satellite operator in three to six months. If it goes badly and the pad is destroyed, it could take up to a year to restore the site before launches can resume, though rocket production would continue during that time, he said. “It will be a really huge downer if it blows up,” Musk said. “If something goes wrong, hopefully it goes wrong far into the mission so we at least learn as much as possible along the way.”
The Falcon Heavy’s demonstration flight is targeting Mars orbit, with Musk’s personal red Tesla Roadster sports car as the payload. Musk said that three cameras would be mounted on the Roadster, which should provide “epic views” of the car floating toward Mars, if all goes to plan. SpaceX had originally expected the Falcon Heavy would send two paying tourists around the moon late this year. But Musk wrote on Instagram Monday that SpaceX will likely use its still-in-development “Big F—ing Rocket” for moon missions instead.
“Could do crewed missions to the moon and Mars with orbital refilling, but better to leave that to the BFR program,” he said. When asked about the moon plans during the conference call, Musk declined to give an updated timeline and said that the BFR development is “moving quickly.”