The Ups And Downs Of The Falcon Heavy Launch

At 20:45 UTC on the 6th of February 2018 the long awaited Falcon Heavy soared up into the sky. Watching the livestream, there was something slightly different. Instead of the usual single commentator, they had four. Behind them, hundreds of SpaceX employees cheering all the way through the launch, with bigger cheers at each milestone. It was definitely long anticipated, and I even felt the impact at university. Students were going round making sure people knew that tonight was the night that the Falcon Heavy was launching. The stream didn’t disappoint space lovers, and I highly recommend watching it on the SpaceX Youtube page.

So what actually happened,  why was this flight so important? The demo mission was the  first firing of the full Falcon Heavy configuration. Although all the rockets had been previously fired and tested at SpaceX’s rocket test facility in McGregor, TX. Consisting of “Block 2” variant side boosters (B1023.2 and B1025.2) and a “Block 3” variant core stage (B1033.1). Both the boosters had been flown before and refurbished in Hawthorne, CA. B1023.2 was flown May 27th, 2016 for Thaicom 8 launch, landing on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. B1025.2 flew on July 18th, 2016 for the CRS-9 mission, landing at Landing Zone (now landing zone 1). It is noted that future Falcon Heavies will likely use the “Block 5” variant. Elon Musk Claims that the development of the Falcon Heavy project has cost $500 million to get to this stage.

Falcon Heavy Before Launch
The Falcon Heavy the night before launch. From @SpaceX on Twitter

At 20:45 UTC, the Falcon Heavy lifted off of pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre. It weighed roughly 1,400 tonnes and was 70m tall. with 2,128 pounds of thrust, the triple barreled rocket lifted off the pad with its 27 Merlin 1D engines (9 on each booster). At the time of writing it is the largest and most powerful operational rocket in use today by a factor of 2. Elon Musk gave the launch a 50-50 chance of success, but it continued through almost all of the milestones. Through Max-Q, release of boosters, and release of the main engine. The second stage performed 3 burns during the 6 hour mission to accelerate the cargo to into a heliocentric orbit. The orbit ranges from earth orbit to beyond mars (0.99 x 1.71AU). The concept of this burn was to demonstrate long coasts between the second and third burns. This ability is needed for some DoD EELV Heavy class missions, a market that SpaceX wants to compete in.

Falcon Heavy Launching
Falcon Heavy launching from pad 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.
Intended Orbit
Intended orbit of the Falcon Heavy payload, heliocentric. From Elon Musk’s Twitter.

Usually on these types of initial flights they put some sort of simulated weight in the fairing (the bit that holds the payload on top) usually a block of concrete. Elon Musk being Elon saw this as a marketing opportunity, and instead used his personal 2008 cherry red Roadster, weighing in at 1,250kg. In the driver’s seat sat a full scale human mannequin named “Starman”, wearing a SpaceX branded pressure spacesuit. The person who timed the release of the fairing showing the Tesla against the backdrop of the earth, to the music of “Life of Mars” by David Bowie, deserves a medal. Although perfectly timed, it is sometimes incorrectly attributed as “Starman” by Bowie, which would make more sense when you think about it. On the dashboard of the car is the immortal words of “don’t panic”, a tribute to A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that was a clever addition. There is a livestream of the first 5 hours of Starmans trip, at which time it probably lost signal, or ran out of battery. There has been mixed reviews of this stunt. Some call it art, whereas others call it “space littering”. Some commentators such as Burnie Burns on the Roosterteeth Podcast simply don’t like the use of space for marketing purposes. Scientists at Purdue University called it “the dirtiest man-made object ever to be sent to space” due to its use driving in Los Angeles.

Tesla Roadster in Orbit
Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster with Starman sat in the driver’s seat.

For me personally the most impressive part of the entire video was near to the end. SpaceX have had some famous problems with the landing of their reusable rockets, but during this mission they planned to land all three. The best shot of the entire livestream was the two boosters coming down at the same time, with the Cape in shot. Both boosters opening their landing legs, and coming down to land on Landing Zone 1 and 2. It was a truly epic sight, and from an engineers point of view, very impressive. The second pad was installed for these Falcon Heavy missions, and the boosters worked just as planned. The core was a slightly different story. It attempted to land on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. It completed its boost-back and reentry burn, but for the three-engine landing burn, two engines failed to ignite. The core ended up in the Atlantic. Smoothly brushed over, this was not mentioned on the Livestream, and not until a few hours later on Twitter. Even so, the things that did land correctly were impressive.

FH Side Booster Landing
The impressive shot of the side boosters landing simultaneously on LZ1 and LZ2, at Cape Canaveral.

There has been a huge amount of excitement and skepticism about the Falcon Heavy. Some have heralded it the way Elon Musk wants to get to Mars, others just love the idea that the car will be out there for “billions of years”. Although very impressive, the Falcon heavy is really designed to be a beefier version of the Falcon 9, and will probably do the same job. SpaceX are aiming in the coming years to get more contracts from the Department of Defence, and aim to get more up into space at the same time. The Falcon Heavy is all about making it cheaper for big payloads to get to space. Although it has the capability to get to Mars, and carry people, Musk has said that there are bigger plans in the pipeline for those jobs. As for the car, according to chemist William Carroll, solar and cosmic radiation will break down most of the car within a year, leaving just the aluminium frame and maybe some glass that isn’t shattered by meteorites.

The Falcon Heavy Launching
The Falcon Heavy launching, taken from behind a SpaceX hangar near the launch site.

This is a big moment for SpaceX, and the space community, and shows that there are big things coming in the sector. There are big launches aimed from the big companies this year, and new rockets being unveiled in the near future. SpaceX may have just started a new space race. For all the excessive marketing that Elon Musk does, SpaceX have definitely got their marketing message right.

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