On July 19 of this year at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C., SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk expressed a clear-eyed reality on the potential for success of the first launch of the company’s Falcon Heavy. He frankly admitted to the audience, in answer to a question, that getting the second stage to orbit was not very likely.

“It’s going to see heavy transonic buffet,” Musk stated. “There’s Max-Q. There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy. There is a good chance that vehicle does not make it to orbit.”

While the Falcon 9 has now proven itself to be very reliable in getting payloads to orbit and getting the booster to land on the drone ship or even back at Cape Canaveral, the Falcon Heavy has triple the complexity and the aerodynamic and thrust loads on the launch vehicle cannot be replicated in captive firing. The two side boosters will be flight-proven, but the core booster is a brand new design and has never been flown.

Falcon Heavy has little in common with Falcon 9

“It actually ended up being way harder doing Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk admitted to the gathering in Washington.  “”The amount of load you’re putting through that center core is crazy. We had to redesign the center core airframe. [And] you’ve got separation systems.”

Musk is also taking into account the development history of the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9 in giving the odds of success or failure of the first launch of the Falcon Heavy, now scheduled for sometime in November. It will be launched from the reconfigured Launch Complex 39A which has previously launched the Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 also launches from SpaceX Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station not far away. LC 39A and LC 39B at Kennedy Space Center were designed to launch the Apollo Saturn V and later reconfigured to launch the Space Shuttle. Today, LC 39A will be capable of launching both the single core Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

This image shows the complexity of the Falcon Heavy with its 27 booster engines.

The Falcon 9 was developed to employ 9 of its Merlin rocket engines. The Falcon Heavy will have 27 engines to ignite and all must be running perfectly for the Heavy to liftoff from the pad. If just one of those engines has an anomaly, the launch will abort. However, if all are generating full thrust, the Falcon Heavy will lift off. That is only the beginning of the nail-biting.

“I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage,” Musk said, to some nervous laughter of the audience at the D.C. conference. “I would consider even that a win, to be honest.” What Musk is stating cryptically, is that if one of the boosters should develop a problem during the first 10 seconds of launch, it could result in the destruction of the Falcon Heavy and the launch complex would suffer serious damage. That would push back the schedule of the rocket’s development flights.

“I hope it makes it,” Musk stated, but added, “Major pucker factor–it really is. No other way to describe it.”

Musk stated the purpose of the Falcon Heavy is to launch the Dragon capsule to the Moon and even on to Mars. It could also launch very heavy payloads into low-Earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit. All three of the boosters are designed to return to the launch complex or drone ships to land on their own power so they can be reused. The core booster may or may not be reused.

“I encourage people to come down to the Cape to see the first Falcon Heavy mission,” Musk offered. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting.”

Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC (2017)
direct email: anthonyhyoung@gmail.com