It has been a very long time since I’ve felt this level of excitement for a space launch. Yes, with me being a spaceflight geek, there is always a level of excitement for a launch, but this one is up there with the excitement of a launch that has humans on board. The reason for this excitement is that tomorrow SpaceX will launch the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket.
Falcon Heavy was supposed to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2013, but Elon Musk admitted that it was harder than expected bolting three Falcon 9 cores together. The center core had to be strengthened to support the two side boosters and the aerodynamics of the rocket changed as well, so the core had to be modified in order to take the extra forces it will be experiencing. Two Falcon 9 mishaps also aided in the delays, but the Falcon 9 failure on SLC (Space Launch Complex)-40 a few minutes before a scheduled static fire, which is customary, heavily damaged the pad, and efforts were expedited in activating Launch Pad 39A, which was being modified for Falcon Heavy. It took over a year to get SLC-40 back operational, and while the east coast Falcon 9’s launched from the former Apollo and Space Shuttle Launch Pad 39A, work between Falcon 9 launches occurred to get the pad ready for this historic flight. The most noticeable difference was that most of the Shuttle-era Rotating Service Structure (RSS) has been disassembled. If you care to look at the launches that took place last year you can see the progression of the dismantling of the RSS between flights.
Tomorrow’s (February 6, 2018) is expected to take place at 1:30pm at the beginning of a 2 1/2 hour launch window that extends until 4pm EST. The launch campaign was originally expected to have the inaugural launch take place in December 2017 then was pushed back until mid-January 2018. The Falcon Heavy rolled out for the first time at the end of December ahead of pad tests and a static firing that was scheduled for early January. The static fire was delayed numerous times, but the government shutdown that occurred in mid-January pushed back the firing that finally occurred on January 24th, therefore delaying the flight from a now late-January (January 31) to an early February launch. The static firing was different because Falcon Heavy sports 27 engines compared to the nine of a regular Falcon 9. The engines were not ignited at the same time to not damage the vehicle, but they were ignited in a staggered sequence much like the Space Shuttle’s main engines. The test lasted for around ten seconds and created a huge billow of steam.
The purpose of this flight is to demonstrate the Falcon Heavy as a system and to send Elon Musk’s cherry red Telsa Roadster, and a dummy with a SpaceX spacesuit that will be used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station as soon as December. The dummy was named “Starman”, a nod to David Bowie, on a Mars distant orbit (heliocentric). This means that it will reach the orbit of Mars at the farthest point in the orbit of the second stage and the Roadster.
When the Falcon Heavy launches, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world at this time. It will produce 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff and both side boosters (both resused Falcon 9 first stages) will return to land at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, while the first stage core will continue to burn for a bit longer and land 212 miles east of Cape Canaveral on the floating landing barge “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean. The Falcon Heavy maiden flight will mark the third flight of SpaceX of 2018, out of the total of 30 that are planned for this year.
2018 will mark a huge year for SpaceX, after this flight, later this year will be an unmanned launch of the crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in August. A modified Falcon 9 will be used to perform an in-flight abort of the crew Dragon and planned for December will be the first crewed mission aboard the crew Dragon to be launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A on a two-week mission to the International Space Station. SpaceX has the potential to be the first company to launch American astronauts on an American rocket from American soil since the last Space Shuttle mission in July 2011, and the first private company to launch humans in space, a feat that is only now being conducted by governments of a few countries…right now, just China and Russia.
As of this writing, weather forecast for tomorrows launch is extremely favorable with an 80 percent chance of good weather. That’s certainly good news for the thousands of people that are expected to come to the Cape to view the launch. The crowds are expected to rival that of the last shuttle launch in 2011 with around 500,000 people combined with people who live in Florida and those who will travel to see the launch. It is already confirmed that Star Wars Star Harrison Ford will be on site to watch the launch since the SpaceX line of Falcon rockets are named after the Star Wars Millennium Falcon.
More to come in a later article that covers the launch and why this launch is so important for America.