Falcon Heavy artist's concept
SpaceX artist concept depicting an uncrewed Dragon capsule launching to Mars atop a Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — As SpaceX gears up for the first launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, the company is backing away from one potential use of the vehicle, launching crewed missions beyond Earth orbit.

In a teleconference with reporters Feb. 5, a day before the scheduled inaugural launch of the rocket, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the progress the company was making on an even larger vehicle made it unlikely that the Falcon Heavy will ever be used for launching crewed spacecraft.

“What we decided internally is to focus our future development on BFR,” he said, referring to a fully-reusable launch vehicle formally known as Big Falcon Rocket. That system was unveiled by Musk at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in September 2016 and updated at the same conference a year later in Australia. That vehicle is designed to place up to 150 tons into low Earth orbit and be able to send humans to the moon and Mars.

SpaceX has provided few updates on the status of BFR, but Musk said that the company was making good progress on the vehicle. The upper stage of BFR, known as the “spaceship,” could be ready for “short flights” next year, a timeline he acknowledged on the call was “aspirational.”

“It looks like BFR development is moving quickly, and it will not be necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for crewed spaceflight,” he said, a point he emphasized later in the call. “We kind of tabled the Crew Dragon on Falcon Heavy in favor of focusing our energy on BFR.”

Less than a year ago, SpaceX announced plans to fly a Crew Dragon spacecraft, with two people on board, on a Falcon Heavy as soon as late 2018. That spacecraft would fly a “free return” trajectory that would take the spacecraft out beyond the moon and back on a one-week flight.

The announcement came after NASA said it was studying putting a crew on the first flight of its Space Launch System, then scheduled for late 2018. The agency later decided to keep that mission uncrewed, and has since delayed the launch to no earlier than the end of 2019.

Prior to the call, SpaceX had not provided any official updates on the proposed mission since that initial announcement, including the identity of the two individuals Musk said approached the company about paying for a flight. At a conference in Luxembourg in November, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she could not provide any updates on the mission other than that there was more interest than she expected in such a mission.

“The most surprising thing about that is that there are as many people as there are who want to go do that, and can seemingly afford to do that,” she said.

Musk, in the call with reporters, did not rule out flying people on Falcon Heavy, but only if there were delays in the development of BFR. “We’ll see how the BFR development goes,” he said. “If that ends up taking longer than expected, then we will return to the idea of sending a Crew Dragon on a Falcon Heavy around the moon, and potentially do other things with crew on Falcon Heavy.”

This is not the first time that SpaceX has dropped plans for a potential novel application of the Falcon Heavy. In 2016, the company announced its Red Dragon mission, which would have sent an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to land on Mars. The company had an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA where the space agency would provide technical support to SpaceX for the mission in exchange for engineering data from the spacecraft’s landing on Mars.

However, Musk said last July that it was no longer pursuing the development of propulsive landings with the Dragon spacecraft, citing challenges of certifying that capability for crewed missions returning from Earth orbit. That would rule out the ability to perform a mission like Red Dragon.

The size of the market for the Falcon Heavy is unclear. Demand for large commercial satellites has dropped in recent years, with a sharp decline in orders for geostationary communications satellites in particular. Improvements to the Falcon 9, meanwhile, have allowed it to carry heavier satellites than originally envisioned, particularly when the rocket is flown in expendable mode. The lack of a high-performance cryogenic upper stage on the Falcon Heavy limits its capabilities for beyond Earth orbit missions as well.

One potential market SpaceX may be targeting for Falcon Heavy is the launch of large national security payloads. The second stage will coast for six hours after orbit insertion before firing its engine again to send its payload, a Tesla Roadster, on an Earth-escape trajectory. Musk said that will simulate a mission to insert a payload directly into geostationary orbit, a requirement for some Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office payloads.

Musk said that the company won’t be limited by production capacity to support Falcon Heavy missions, as only the center core requires significant unique manufacturing. The side boosters are effectively the same as the first stage of a Falcon 9, with the addition of a nose cap on top.

“We can really produce Falcon Heavies at a pretty rapid rate,” he said. “Whatever the demand is, we’ll be able to meet it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...