What SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket means for America's space program

Contributed by
Jan 17, 2018

This month (or maybe next), SpaceX will make history when it launches the Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time. It’s a huge deal in terms of space travel, but to really understand why, we have to look back at what’s been happening with NASA and space over the last few decades.

Since Apollo 17 returned from the Moon on December 19, 1972, we haven't left our planet's orbit. After the visionary days of Apollo, NASA's goals revolved around making space travel safer, more reliable, and less expensive. They built the Space Shuttle fleet, and the ISS to have somewhere to send the orbiters. We've been toiling away in low Earth orbit ever since.

(Incidentally, though I personally have nostalgia for the Space Shuttle, the orbiters actually increased the cost of access to space per pound. Initially, NASA envisioned launching a mission per week, but in the end they were too delicate and expensive to live up to their promise.)

The question is, then, how do we get back out there into outer space, beyond the confines of our own planet's orbit? How do we become explorers? We may have the will (though even that pronouncement is questionable, judging from NASA's budgets over the last few years), but we don't currently have the way, in terms of human spaceflight. 

You may be familiar with SpaceX. If you’re not, the short story is that it’s the company owned by Elon Musk of Tesla fame. The company has done remarkably well, and made headlines over and over again because of its emphasis on rocket reusability. Its pioneer, headline-making rocket is the Falcon 9.

Generally, rockets are made of multiple stages; Apollo's Saturn Vs were three-stage rockets. The Falcon 9 is made up of two stages. Each stage has its own engines and fuel. A rocket needs the most thrust power when it’s at ground level, in order to escape the Earth’s clutches; after the fuel for the first stage is spent, it will detach, which limits the amount of weight the rocket has to drag up and out of Earth's atmosphere. SpaceX has regularly (and spectacularly) landed first stages of its Falcon 9 rocket and has begun reusing them to make access to space even more cost-effective.

Now, the Falcon 9 could eventually be used to send humans to the ISS. It has always been designed with that in mind, and test flights could happen later this year (more likely it’ll be 2019). But what about space exploration? What about getting out of Earth orbit, to the Moon, Mars, and beyond? That’s the ticket here, and that is where the Falcon Heavy comes in.

To be able to build spaceships and space stations and colonies and all kinds of other glorious endeavors that will make us a true spacefaring civilization, we need heavy lift rockets. Basically, if we’re going to explore our solar system, we need to able to carry heavy things into orbit, construct all of it in space (because weight is the key when it comes to space travel, and it’s a lot easier to send up a lot of smaller parts than one giant spaceship), and embark on our adventures.

Since the Saturn V, which sent our astronauts to the Moon, we haven’t had a rocket capable of taking humans outside of Earth orbit. To put this into perspective, the ISS is just 250 miles away. The Moon is between 220,000 and 250,000 miles away, depending on where it is in relation to Earth. To break free of Earth's powerful gravity, we need an extremely powerful rocket.

This is why people talk about the Falcon Heavy with such stars in their eyes. It will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V; to deliver some perspective, when the one and only night launch of the Apollo program occurred, the launch lit up the Eastern seaboard all the way to North Carolina. And while the Falcon 9 has nine Merlin engines (hence the name), this new rocket has 27. The Falcon Heavy signals America’s return to spaceflight in a significant way.

(If you’re wondering why NASA doesn’t have its own rocket — well, it does. It’s developing the SLS, or Space Launch System, which has been its own disaster pool of overruns and delays. When it’s completed, it will be the most powerful rocket constructed by humans. Ever.)

The Falcon Heavy was announced back in 2011, and it has (understandably) taken a while for the rocket to be developed and built. There have been numerous delays in scheduling, but now we’re close. So close I can taste it.

I personally have been waiting for this launch since the rocket was announced. In fact, I’ve taken to rescheduling my life around the possibility that the Falcon Heavy might take off soon. I was born too late to witness the spectacular Saturn V launches; this is the next best thing for my generation.

The next step for the Falcon Heavy is the static fire test, which is when the rocket is held down on the launch pad and all 27 of its engines are fired at once. Also called the “hold-down” test, it has been rescheduled numerous times. That’s not a surprise, or a signal anything is wrong; the rocket is a behemoth, and SpaceX is being cautious. Once the static fire test happens, and there’s good data from that, SpaceX will finally schedule a launch date.

It may not be especially soon, but it’ll happen. And I’ll be there to see it.