Elon Musk has sharp elbows when it comes to a new market.
When SpaceX was competing to fly cargo to the International Space Station, Musk mocked his rival’s rockets. Vying to launch spy satellites, SpaceX sued the US Air Force for a chance to bid on classified launches. Plotting a satellite internet constellation, he promised a network “an order of magnitude” more sophisticated than his competitors. Tomorrow (Feb. 6), his space company will attempt to launch the largest rocket in the world, the Falcon Heavy—and if successful, the rocket entrepreneur could find himself set for collision with a gigantic rocket NASA been building for more than a decade.
SpaceX’s goal since 2002 has been to develop the technology to make humanity a multi-planetary species. The Falcon Heavy is the first vehicle built by Musk’s company with the capability of taking a usefully large scientific robot—or even, in stages, a human exploration mission—beyond earth orbit, and to another astronomical body.
“We can start to realistically contemplate missions like a Mars sample return—which requires quite a lot of lift capability because you’ve got to send a lander to Mars that still has enough propellant to return to Earth,” Musk said when he unveiled the concept for the vehicle in 2011. “It certainly opens up a wide range of possibilities, such as returning to the Moon and conceivably even going to Mars.”
The chronically over-promising executive figured that his company would be prepared to launch the vehicle the following year. Now, seven years later, that moment has finally arrived and much has changed in the private space sector: SpaceX is no longer an underdog, but a leading commercial launch company—at least in orbit where the company’s rockets launch satellites, service the ISS, and, in 2019, are expected to fly astronauts for the first time.
But is SpaceX ready to bring its brash attitude into deep space?
What is the Falcon Heavy?
The Falcon Heavy rocket is as tall as a 20-story building, consisting of three cylindrical rocket boosters strapped side-by-side, with a total of 27 engines. Firing together, these engines burn liquid oxygen and highly-refined kerosene to provide more than 2,500 tons of force, lifting the vehicle and its cargo off the ground and into space.