SpaceX set for Falcon Heavy debut

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said Feb. 5 that everything is going well for the inaugural launch of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, scheduled for Feb. 6.

In a teleconference with reporters, Musk said there were no technical or other issues for the launch, scheduled for Launch Complex 39A here during a two-and-a-half-hour launch window that opens at 1:30 p.m. Eastern. Weather forecasts continue to predict an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather for the launch, decreasing to 70 percent should the launch slip a day.

“Amazingly, it looks like we’re going to launch tomorrow,” he said. “I thought for sure something would delay us, some issue that we would discover on the rocket, or maybe bad weather, but the weather’s looking good, the rocket’s looking good.”

The launch will be the first for the heavy-lift rocket, which ultimately be able to place up to 64 metric tons into low Earth orbit. The vehicle uses three Falcon 9 first stages as booster cores, analogous to the Delta 4 Heavy, along with a second stage.

That configuration carries risks that can’t be tested until the launch itself, Musk said. “The things I think about are the relative interactions of the three core boosters,” he said, such as unforeseen resonances or shockwave impingement as the vehicle passes Mach 1. The separation system has not been tested in flight either. “Once the second stage separates from the center booster, we’re in much more known territory.”

The second stage will perform a six-hour coast after entering orbit before performing a final burn to send its payload on an escape trajectory. That is intended to demonstrate the ability of the rocket to directly insert payloads into geostationary orbit, a requirement of some national security missions.

That coast carries with it some risks of its own, such as a passage through the Van Allen Belts. “It’s going to get whacked pretty hard” with charged particles, he said. There’s also the risk the stage’s fuel could freeze, or its liquid oxygen evaporate.

The long-delayed inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy – the company said in April 2011 that the vehicle would be ready for a first launch in 2013 – is a demonstration mission without a paying customer. In December, Musk announced the rocket would carry his own Tesla Roadster sports car on a trajectory that would take it past the planet Mars.

The car includes a mannequin sitting in the driver’s seat, wearing a spacesuit like the one SpaceX has developed for its commercial crew program. The car will carry several cameras that Musk said should provide “epic views” if all goes well.

The mission plans to insert the car into a heliocentric orbit between the Earth and Mars that will take the car as far as 400 million kilometers from the Earth. “It will essentially be an Earth-Mars cycler,” he said. He did not disclose how close the vehicle will come to Mars other than it has an “extremely tiny” chance of colliding with the planet.

If that demonstration mission is a success, SpaceX has at least two more Falcon Heavy launches planned for 2018, of the Arabsat 6A communications satellite and the Space Test Program 2 mission for the U.S. Air Force, although the timing of those missions is uncertain. In the call with reporters, he said he anticipated another Falcon Hevay launch in three to six months if this launch is a success.

If the launch fails, the severity of the setback will depend on where the failure occurs. In a worst-case scenario, the rocket could explode on the pad, damaging it and requiring 9 to 12 months of repairs, he said.

“It would be a real huge downer if it blows up,” he said. “If something goes wrong, hopefully it goes wrong far into the mission, so we at least learn as much as possible along the way. This is a test mission, and there’s so much that can go wrong.”

Musk, though, sounded confident about the launch and the prospects for the Falcon Heavy. With the ability to recover at least two, if not all three, booster cores, he argued that a Falcon Heavy launch should cost not much more than a Falcon 9. “We’re able to offer arguably super-heavy-lift, or nearly super-heavy-lift capability, for not much more than a Falcon 9,” he said. “If we’re successful, it is game over for all other heavy-lift rockets.”

Musk said he was unusually calm, even “giddy and happy,” on the eve of the Falcon Heavy’s debut. “Normally I feel super stressed-out the day before, but this time I don’t,” he said. “Maybe that’s a bad sign.”