Tag Archives: Falcon Heavy

Making Space Look Easy

Time and again during launch campaigns, the media representatives for SpaceX remind the public that “Space Is Hard.”   There is no question that spaceflight is immensely complex and full of risks.  That said, SpaceX continues to make spaceflight to Earth orbit seem easier and easier.    The most recent example was this past Tuesday, June 25, at 2:30am when the Falcon Heavy (FH) leapt off Pad 39A and executed what can be described fairly as one of the most complex satellite delivery missions ever:  Space Test Program 2.

For space enthusiasts viewing the launch at KSC or elsewhere down on the Cape, the launch was pure spectacle of the very best kind.   More than 2,500 visitors flocked to the Saturn V Center on Banana Creek with hopes of watching the FH head to orbit (and return) in the middle of the night from the closest vantage point for the general public.   They persisted through a 3-hour wait in the launch window, despite oppressive humidity.    SpaceX and the KSC Visitor Center made the wait all the more worthwhile by providing tunes, pre-launch commentary and catered food.   These FH gatherings provide an important public service, putting children and adults in close contact with what is currently the most audacious and creative spaceflight engineering on the planet.   These are also great and important opportunities for people from around the country (and the globe) with a wide range of perspectives to find and celebrate common ground — a staunch belief in and appreciation of the value of space science and engineering in what is otherwise a fractured political landscape.

At 2:30am, T-minus zero, the 27 Merlin engines on the core and twin boosters fired up and SpaceX once again demonstrated how ingenuity and determination can yield remarkable results including:

  • Launch of a FH using recycled boosters
  • Recovering two of the two boosters on land, adjacent to the launch site
  • Delivering with high-precision 24 satellites across a wide range of orbits
  • Cycling through 4 separate, second-stage burns to get the payload elements to the right  orbits
  • Almost succeeding in a Hail Mary recovery of the first-stage core hundreds of miles out to sea.
  • Catching part of the payload fairing at night

Simply put, the night launch of the FH was beautiful.

Once the FH cleared the pad and headed East, the sky was marked by a stunning, fast-moving, tear-drop of red-orange flame.  After a few seconds, the sounds of launch reached the Saturn V Center and viewers were treated to the truly eerie vibrations created by 27 Merlin engines as they throttle up to full thrust.  The sound is akin to dozens of tightly-coiled springs twanging at high-frequency with a deep base vibe underscoring it.   As the FH pushed downrange, from the ground it seems that the vehicle had turned into a meteorite streaking across the sky, looking as if it might be diving down toward the horizon.   During the immediate climb-out, it was possible to see the condensation cloud that washes over the vehicle as it crosses Max Q.  The sky was clear enough that folks on the ground could see with the naked eye:

  • Separation of the side boosters
  • Haunting, gaseous plumes created by the booster pitch-around and burn-back manuevers
  • Cutoff of the Merlin engines on the center core
  • The concurrent, high-altitude deceleration burns of the side boosters heading back to the Cape
  • The landing burns of the side boosters

No one was disappointed.  I suspect the United States Air Force, the prime sponsor of this mission, was equally satisfied with the outcome for it now has another, economical and reliable flight-proven option for getting various payloads to orbit.

Space is hard but it appears to be getting easier.

Heavy Stuff

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!