Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, represents SpaceX’s entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category.
With the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Falcon Heavy can lift nearly twice the payload of the next closest vehicle, the US Space Shuttle, and more than twice the payload of the Delta IV Heavy.
Elon Musk, CEO and chief rocket designer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) unveiled the dramatic final specifications and launch date for the Falcon Heavy, the world’s largest rocket.
“Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions,” Musk told a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
High Reliability and High Performance
The Falcon Heavy is designed for extreme reliability and can tolerate the failure of several engines and still complete its mission. As on commercial airliners, protective shells surround each engine to contain a worst-case situation such as fire or a chamber rupture, and prevent it from affecting the other engines and stages. A disabled engine is automatically shut down, and the remaining engines operate slightly longer to compensate for the loss without detriment to the mission.
Falcon Heavy will be the first rocket in history to feature propellant cross-feed from the side boosters to the center core. Propellant cross-feeding leaves the center core still carrying the majority of its propellant after the side boosters separate. This gives Falcon Heavy performance comparable to that of a three-stage rocket, even though only the single Merlin engine on the upper stage requires ignition after lift-off, further improving both reliability and payload performance. Should cross-feed not be required for lower mass missions, it can be easily turned off.
Anticipating potential astronaut transport needs, Falcon Heavy is also designed to meet NASA human rating standards. Falcon Heavy is designed to higher structural safety margins of 40% above flight loads, rather than the 25% level of other rockets, and triple redundant avionics. Despite being designed to higher structural margins than other rockets, the Falcon Heavy side booster stages have a mass ratio (full vs. empty) above 30, better than any launcher in history. By comparison, the Delta IV side boosters have a mass ratio of about 10.
SAVING THE USA $1B ANNUALLY
If allowed to compete, SpaceX can help the Department of Defense save at least one billion dollars annually in space launch services, while providing a truly independent family of vehicles to help assure access to space.
The Falcon Heavy is classified as an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). The EELV program was established by the United States Air Force to launch satellites into orbit more economically. The program was intended to both secure access to space for the Department of Defense and other United States government payloads and lower costs by at least 25%, and with a goal of 50%.
Unfortunately, primarily due to lack of competition, costs have actually escalated–increasing by over 30% for FY 2012 alone. The total cost of the current program now exceeds $2.7B, with over $1B paid to a single provider just to sustain the program. That is one billion dollars per year, whether they launch or not.
Falcon Heavy with more than twice the payload but less than one third the cost of a Delta IV Heavy, will provide much needed relief to government and commercial budgets. This year, even as the Department of Defense budget was cut, the EELV launch program, which includes the Delta IV, still saw a thirty percent increase.
The 2012 Air Force budget includes $1.74B for four launches, an average of $435M per launch. With Falcon Heavy priced at $80-125M per launch SpaceX has the potential to provide the US government significant value. In addition, the medium-lift Falcon 9 could support a number of medium-lift Air Force launches at only $50-60M per launch, if SpaceX were allowed to compete for this business.
Click here for complete benefits the SpaceX Falcon family of launch vehicles provides to EELV.
Below are the standard fairing dimensions for Falcon Heavy. Dimensions are in meters and in inches inside the brackets. Custom fairings are available at incremental cost.