Tuesday, May 22, 2018

 

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a Commercial Space Transportation License on Friday, February 2. It reads:

Space Exploration Technologies is authorized to conduct: (i) A flight of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) transporting the modified Tesla Roadster (mass simulator) to a hyperbolic orbit.

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In other words: The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is ready to fly.

SpaceX

The FAA also put into place temporary airspace restrictions covering Florida’s Space Coast for SpaceX’s three-hour launch window that starts at 1:30 p.m. EST on Tuesday, February 6, as well as a backup window at the same time the following day. The latest report from the U.S. Air Force 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral is 80 percent chance for go conditions on Tuesday, 70 percent on Wednesday.

SpaceX has cautioned that Falcon Heavy’s demonstration flight date could slip, as is common with first flights of new rockets. Downplaying expectations, Elon Musk has even said he would consider the maiden flight a success as long as the vehicle doesn’t destroy the launch pad.

Things might not be so grim, however. The triple-booster rocket successfully conducted a hold-down fire test on January 24, igniting all 27 Merlin engines on the vehicle for about 12 seconds. The test went off without a hitch, and SpaceX has decided to proceed to launch without another static fire test. When the weather is right, and the temperature, pressure and avionics readings on the rocket are nominal, Falcon Heavy will fly.

 

“I’ve always scratched my head. Why would you do this?”

For its first flight, the heavy-lift rocket will blast off with Elon Musk’s car, a red Tesla Roadster. The payload is simultaneously a mass simulator, a cross-brand promotional stunt, and a boyish antic of Elon Musk’s. The car will fly on a hyperbolic orbit in relation to our planet, meaning it will achieve escape velocity and depart Earth orbit. The red Roadster’s destination is a heliocentric orbit around the sun at roughly the same distance as Mars. If it makes it, the car could float aimlessly in space for thousands or even millions of years.

The arrival of Falcon Heavy has piqued the curiosity of the world. Aerospace industry experts wait to see if Musk really can pull off a base price of just $90 million, about a fourth of the rocket’s closest competitor. The U.S. Air Force and satellite company Arabsat eagerly await the debut of a rocket they have already booked for future launches. Congress wonders if the rocket could facilitate NASA’s ambitions to return to the moon. And 100,000 people are making pilgrimage to Cape Canaveral to see the largest rocket since Saturn V fly to space.

Mr. Musk’s Many Visions

A red car will orbit with the red planet. You could argue the stunt is a flippant marketing scheme or a symbolic gesture of humanity’s quest to settle the solar system. Either way, the Roadster launch is the type of shenanigan we have come to expect from SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. A look at his many companies provides a glimpse of the tech magnate’s vision of the future.

Elon Musk in a space suit designed by SpaceX to carry astronauts in the Dragon 2 spacecraft.Elon Musk/Instagram

Still in his mid-20s, Musk got his start as a leading technology entrepreneur in 1995 with the dot-com company Zip2, which he founded with his brother Kimbal to develop online city guide software for newspapers. He then used money from the sale of Zip2 to co-found X.com, which merged with Confinity and become PayPal in 2001.

PayPal made Musk a fortune, and he immediately turned his attention to space. Before SpaceX was even SpaceX, it was all about Mars. Musk announced in 2001 that he planned to invest $20 million in a Mars lander, a proposition that predates the founding of SpaceX in 2002, and a colony on Mars has served as the core of the company’s vision ever since.

“Musk has made his ambitions clear to eventually provide transportation to Mars for passengers to settle the planet,” Jack Burns, an astronomy professor at the University of Colorado who recently served on the NASA transition team, told Popular Mechanics in an email.”I think this is still far-off in the future and is a lot harder than PowerPoint slides and videos would suggest. Nonetheless, SpaceX will compete for solar system exploration mission support.”

Musk didn’t abandon the Earth however. Tesla was founded a year after SpaceX to build luxury electric cars. The company has since started manufacturing a more affordable car for the masses, introduced home battery systems to store electric energy, created solar roof shingles to collect power, and even struck a deal earlier this month with the Australian government to outfit 50,000 homes with solar panels and power storage equipment to create a nation-wide power grid.

SpaceX image of Mars terraformed to support life.SpaceX

Musk’s next companies are advanced technology research firms. The non-profit OpenAI, co-founded by Musk at the end of 2015, aims to ensure the responsible development of artificial intelligence and guard against what Musk sees as a major long-term threat of machine learning surpassing human capability, with potentially dire consequences. In pursuit of similar aims is Neuralink, founded by Musk and eight partners in 2016. The company researches neural implant technology and eventually hopes to develop brain-computer interfaces t0 augment human cognitive abilities—again to protect humanity from becoming obsolete in a future of sentient machines.

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And then you have Elon Musk’s most recent venture, the Boring Company. Founded by Musk at the end of 2016, this operation hopes to construct a network of tunnels underneath Los Angeles to alleviate traffic and eventually build tiered tunnel systems that could transport passengers and their cars on high-speed electric sleds, possibly opening the door for underground vacuum chamber hyperloop transportation in the future. The company, however, has become something of a marketing and regulatory-prodding apparatus of Musk’s. He’s working to navigate local governments to begin digging projects, and then flaunted his ability to sell flamethrowers branded with the Boring Company name.

Like the flamethrowers, the Tesla launch to Mars orbit is outside of (or perhaps ahead of) government regulations. As long as the car doesn’t risk impacting Mars—and it’s expected to miss by more than 50 million miles—there is nothing stopping Elon Musk from hurling his personal car into space.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster that will launch on the Falcon Heavy demonstration flight, with a dummy dressed in a SpaceX space suit behind the wheel.Elon Musk/Instagram

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The companies founded by Musk are intertwined in a common mission to bring a science fiction future to fruition. Musk even suggested his Boring Company could develop digging technologies to build tunnel networks and subterranean habitats on Mars.

“I do think getting good at digging tunnels could be really helpful for Mars,” Musk said at a space conference in July 2017. “For sure there’s going to be a lot of ice mining on Mars, and mining in general to get raw materials. … And then, along the way, building underground habitats where you could get radiation shielding… you could build an entire city underground if you wanted to.”

Heavy Rocket, Small World?

Of course, Musk over-promises. Falcon Heavy was announced in 2011, when the chief of SpaceX said the rocket would be ready to fly in just a couple years.

Yet by pushing his spaceflight company to accomplish lofty feats in impossible timeframes, Musk succeeds in bringing new technologies to the world. In 2008, SpaceX became the first private company to design and build a rocket that launched a payload to orbit without government assistance. Two years later, the company achieved another first for private industry, launching, orbiting and recovering a spacecraft, the Dragon. SpaceX then conducted the first private resupply mission to the International Space Station in 2012. In late 2015, the company carried out a successful propulsive landing of an orbital rocket for the first time, and less than two years later it launched a used rocket for the first time. Today, it’s commonplace for SpaceX to its rockets and reuse them in future launches.

Since the introduction of Falcon 9 in 2015, SpaceX has more than doubled the payload capacity of the rocket. The company is developing Falcon 9 Block 5, which will increase capacity even further and allow SpaceX to launch astronauts to the ISS.

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Falcon 9 propulsive first stage landing after the NROL-47 mission, May 1, 2017.SpaceX

Falcon Heavy could achieve a new mechanical marvel as well—landing all three boosters of the first stage after hurling a payload out to Mars. Such a feat would cement the notion that vertical propulsive landings are the future of spaceflight, even in the heavy-lift category, making rockets more like airplanes, as Musk likes to say.

Still, many industry experts look on Falcon Heavy perplexed. Smaller satellites seem like the future of the launch market. Companies like Rocket Lab and Vector are building and testing small rockets than can quickly and cheaply launch these single-purpose sats that research institutions and space agencies are pumping out by the hundreds.

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“I’ve always scratched my head, why would you do this?” Jim Cantrell, CEO of Vector and part of the founding team of SpaceX, recently said to the New York Times. “There’s pretty good financial and technical reasons for going smaller.”

From a business standpoint, it’s easy to wonder why SpaceX is building a giant, complex rocket that will have trouble finding payloads to fly. Taking the time to upgrade Falcon 1, with its single Merlin engine, to rapidly launch small satellites would appear to be the more lucrative move.

SpaceX Iridium-4 launch, December 22, 2017.SpaceX

Which brings us back to Mars. Wasteful stunt or starry-eyed gesture, the Roaster flight is also a message to the world: Falcon Heavy can fly missions out into the solar system.
As it currently stands, NASA has several interplanetary missions in development that do not yet have assigned launch vehicles. Burns says that missions that could fly on Falcon Heavy “include Mars Sample Return, next generation large uv-optical space telescopes, missions to the outer planets under development via the New Frontiers and Discovery programs, and the development of surface lunar science infrastructure.”

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Europa Clipper, for example, is the $2 billion NASA flagship mission to search the tantalizing icy moon of Jupiter for signs of life. Optimistically, NASA plans to launch Europa Clipper on the Space Launch System (SLS), a colossal rocket with even more thrust than Falcon Heavy. The benefit of using the enormous launch vehicle is that it could fling the Clipper out to Europa in just two or three years. Launched on Falcon Heavy, the spacecraft’s flight would take at least twice as long to arrive.

 

To enable people to live on other planets, you need a big rocket.

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On the other hand, Falcon Heavy exists. SLS has been delayed time and again, and the much-delayed monster is not expected to launch for the first time until 2020 at the earliest. The rocket will fly a test mission and then a crewed lunar mission tentatively slated for 2022, so the huge rocket probably won’t be available for solar system exploration missions until the mid-2020s, even in the best-case scenario.

Falcon Heavy will also launch for a fraction of the price of SLS. A Falcon Heavy launch is expected to start at $90 million, with additional fees for specific mission needs. The SLS is expected to cost $500 million per launch after the cadence increases to about one rocket per year, and costs could be even higher as the program gets started.

“NASA will need to do a trade study to see if the speed of reaching Europa is worth the extra cost of the SLS launch,” says Burns.

SpaceX CRS-13 resupply mission to the International Space Station with a Dragon cargo spacecraft, December 15, 2017.SpaceX

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The Chase

SpaceX is not alone in going big. United Launch Alliance, the collaboration of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that dominated. the satellite launch market before Musk’s arrival, is working on a new rocket called Vulcan. Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’s rocket company, Blue Origin, is building a rocket called New Glenn that would be almost as powerful as Falcon Heavy.

“SpaceX, Blue Origin, and ULA, in a competitive environment, will make space science and exploration missions more affordable,” says Burns. “We’ll be able to deliver more payloads to the lunar surface and spacecraft to the planets.”

 

“You could build an entire city underground if you wanted to.”

To achieve the type of space exploration advancement that Musk talks about, flying humans and equipment and habitats to the moon and Mars, you need a big rocket. To launch missions to the outer solar system, probing the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn for life, you need a big rocket. To “enable people to live on other planets,” SpaceX’s stated goal, you need a big rocket.

In fact, Musk has already announced plans for an even more powerful launch vehicle than Falcon Heavy, known as the BFR. On paper, this two-stage behemoth could fly as many as 100 people to the red planet at a time.

But first, Falcon Heavy will unleash more than 5 million pounds of thrust into the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, becoming the most powerful rocket in the world when it lifts off. The last time pad 39A bore that kind of brunt was the final flight of the space shuttle, STS-135, which launched the shuttle Atlantis on July 8, 2011. Almost seven years later, and no comparable launch vehicle has flown from U.S. soil.

It’s time to let Falcon Heavy fly.

SpaceX

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