Typically, I don’t tack commentary on top of previously published commentary, but what we witnessed with the Falcon Heavy launch was not typical. It was revolutionary — and solid evidence that true (not subsidized) commercial spaceflight is right around the corner. It is also evidence that we better believe Elon Musk when he says SpaceX is going to build a BFR for deep-space passenger and cargo loads.
Unless you have been living under a rock, we all saw what SpaceX and Falcon Heavy accomplished. Succesful, stand-up (first-time) launch of a new vehicle. Successful, simultaneous return-to-launch-site of two (previously flown) boosters. A nearly successful return of the core first-stage (…missed it by that much). Successful fairing deploy. Successful orbit and orbital-escape burns for one of the most unique payloads ever.
If you were down on the Cape to see the Heavy go, you experienced one of the most energizing and optimism-fueling events in spaceflight since Atlantis made its final reach for the stars in 2011. It was a party atmosphere — and SpaceX and Delaware North (the outsourced operator of KSC visitor sites) proved they know how to throw a party. At the Saturn V center there was champagne. Champagne flutes. Delicious and endless empanadas, egg rolls, stir-fry, pasta and ice cream. Bill Nye the Science Guy was onsite, narrating the event and talking up science literacy! The crowd was representative of the U.S.: blue, red, purple, from all part of the nation. People who travelled 10-20-200-500-1000-and-3000 miles to bear witness. “Make American Great Again” hat-wearers right next to climate scientists.
We have in Falcon Heavy the backup we will need if SLS/Orion is further drawn out or cancelled (please, no)! It is the bridge to BFR (assuming we can find a safe location from which to launch it). It is evidence that the genius and vision that led to something as remarkable (and complex) as the Space Shuttle lives on.
HERE WE GO! The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is at Pad 39A down on the Cape, ready to fly. This moment has been a long-time coming and by that I mean the return of boosters truly capable of sending astronauts Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO). The last U.S. rocket capable of doing that was the Saturn V that lofted Skylab in 1973. NASA continues work on its next human-rated, heavy lift (“deep” space exploration) rocket — the SLS. If we are lucky, we might see SLS and the Orion capsule launch astronauts beyond Earth orbit in 2023. The trickle of funding that has barely kept the SLS\Orion alive is at constant risk of reduction or deletion. At best, I think it’s 50-50 that SLS gets beyond its initial exploratory mission. Kinda like the Energia system that launched the USSR’s shuttle. As a nation, we won’t be able to afford it — or have the will to sustain it.
Falcon Heavy could be the vehicle that fills the gap between now and when SLS\Orion flies. Or it may simply by default become the only option we are going to have for supporting human BEO missions for a long time to come. SpaceX will need customers — and human-rated qualification for the Heavy and whatever capsule (Dragon Crew, presumably) it puts on top of the Heavy’s core booster — if it is going to ramp-up production of the Heavy and fine-tine it for human spaceflight. Wouldn’t it be great if NASA considered using the Falcon Heavy for some of its science and exploratory missions? Despite all the skepticism about commercial cargo and commercial crew, for-profit companies have achieved substantial leaps and bounds in the development of new flight hardware — yes, some very much derived from the Saturn program and, yes, very much funded by government agencies, a.k.a., customers.
With the coming launch of Falcon Heavy, for the first time since I was a grade-schooler, I really believe I will live to see human’s return to the moon. Let’s see (and hope for) a nice, clean flight this coming week!