More launches, bigger rockets, and deeper challenges await
The first launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket was mostly a success for SpaceX. The middle rocket core broke apart when it crashed into the water next to the company’s autonomous drone ship, and the Tesla payload overshot its target. But the launch was an otherwise excellent showcase of what the Falcon Heavy is supposed to be all about: big-time power to propel big-time payloads.
So what comes next for the private spaceflight company? The answer has three parts: one for each of SpaceX’s current and future rockets. There is, of course, the Falcon Heavy itself. But it’s partially made up of Falcon 9s, reliable rockets in their own right, and the current money-makers for SpaceX. Also, last year, Elon Musk announced the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. The company’s immediate future will be all about finding a balance between the first two until the BFR is ready to fly.
The next launch of the Falcon Heavy won’t be for another “three to six months,” according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The cadence for Falcon Heavy flights depends on two things, Musk said: the rate at which the company can produce the center section of the rocket, and customer demand. The outer boosters are easy to produce because they’re just Falcon 9 boosters with nose cones attached. The Falcon Heavy’s center core uses the same engines as a Falcon 9 booster, but the rest of the metal tube, known as the rocket’s airframe, has to be upgraded for each flight.
So, Musk says, the rate of Falcon Heavy flights is “is really [dependent on] production rate of the airframe of the center core.” Since that’s the main difference, he says, “we can really produce Falcon Heavies at a pretty rapid rate. Whatever the demand is, we’ll be able to meet it.”
That demand is hard to parse at the moment. There are a few launches scheduled for 2018, such as a large Saudi Arabian communications satellite and a test payload for the US military. But Musk envisions “several” Falcon Heavy launches a year, a point he reiterated this week.
“The great thing about Falcon heavy is that it opens up a new class of payload,” he said. “It could launch one more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world, so it’s up to customers what they might want to launch. But it can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. No stop needed.”
In the meantime, the company will also be working on fixing the problem that doomed the central core’s landing. Musk has said the plan with the Falcon Heavy is to recover “at least two of the three cores” on each flight, though recovering all three would be ideal. And SpaceX has a good idea of what went wrong with the third landing. The rocket needs three of the nine engines to land, and only one lit up. So that’s where they’ll start.
The next Falcon Heavy won’t reuse any of the major pieces that survived this flight. The two side boosters that went up this week, which had already flown on their own Falcon 9 missions, are being retired. They are older versions of the Falcon 9 architecture, and the company only wants to refly the newest versions of Falcon 9 rockets from now on, Musk said in a post-flight press conference. So, the next Falcon Heavy launch, whenever it is, will be powered by a brand-new center core and two other side boosters.
The company might, however, reuse the cross-hatched pieces of metal at the top of each rocket that help guide it safely to the ground, which are called grid fins. Musk mused in the post-launch press conference about how happy he was to have recovered them. They take a long time to produce, he said, especially since the company began making them out of titanium. “Those frickin’ grid fins, they’re super expensive,” he said. “That was the most important thing to recover.”
Beyond flying again, Musk said he hopes the first flight of the Falcon Heavy inspires more competition. At the post-flight press conference, he spoke about how the rocket was developed using around $500 million of the company’s own funds. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a sliver compared to the multi-billion dollar price tags of some other famous rockets. “I think it’s going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say hey we can do bigger and better, which is great,” he said. “We want a new space race. Races are exciting.”
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SOURCE: The Verge – Sean O’Kane