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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch is one giant leap for space exploration

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch is one giant leap for space exploration
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On a sunny February afternoon, not only was history changed, but the future was altered in ways that cannot now be properly evaluated. The long-delayed SpaceX Falcon Heavy finally roared off the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in what appeared to be a perfect launch. 

The rocket ship consisted of a core first stage, two strap-on boosters, a second stage, and a flying Tesla Roadster electric sports car with a mannequin at the controls dubbed “Star Man.” The car and Star Man are headed for Mars.

The launch afforded the sight of a heavy-lift rocket that had not been seen at the Kennedy Space Center since the last space shuttle mission. A number of sights occurred that have never before been seen by human eyes. The two side boosters landed back at the Kennedy Space Center simultaneously in a maneuver that was as intricate and as beautiful as a ballet. The first pictures from low Earth orbit of Star Man sitting in the sports car were something out of science fiction. 

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The only failure of the launch occurred when the core first stage ran out of fuel and hit the ocean at great speed near the drone ship where it was supposed to land.

 

SpaceX’s Elon Musk is rapidly becoming one of the most important people of the 21st century. First, he achieved a measure of reusability by landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 and then achieving that feat on a regular basis. The first stage has already been refurbished and reused on subsequent flights, greatly lowering the cost of a launch of the Falcon 9.

Now, Musk has built and flown a heavy-lift rocket, capable of putting almost 64 metric tons in low Earth orbit, second only to the legendary Saturn V. Both technologies will be crucial for opening the high frontier of space at last.

The Falcon Heavy provides the world with a lot of capability for the relatively cheap cost of $90 million a launch. The Pentagon has already contracted with SpaceX for some heavy military payloads. The Trump administration is looking at the heavy-lift rocket to kick off its return to the moon program, at the very least landing robots on the lunar surface to prospect for resources and to start mining and processing them for future astronauts.

Other missions being looked at for the Falcon Heavy include a sample return flight to Mars and voyages to some of the moons of the outer planets, such as ice-shrouded Europa and Enceladus as well as Titan, with its seas of liquid methane.

One type of mission that Musk is no longer contemplating for the Falcon Heavy is anything involving people. About a year ago the SpaceX CEO announced that he had two paying customers willing to fly a specially outfitted Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon Heavy on a trip around the moon. Musk has dropped that idea, because his eyes are focused on the next big thing, a huge, reusable spacecraft called the Big Falcon Rocket, capable of putting 150 metric tons into low Earth orbit. Musk thinks that progress on the BFR is proceeding nicely.

The Big Falcon Rocket is Musk’s way to achieve his dream of founding a settlement on Mars. The BFR can also land people and cargo on the moon. White House National Space Council and NASA are likely looking at what the Big Falcon Rocket could do with great anticipation. Musk has said that SpaceX will start hop tests of the Big Falcon Rocket next year at the company’s new space port near Brownsville, Texas. Orbital flights will be conducted in three to four years. Soon after, the BFR will go to the moon.

SpaceX’s aerospace rivals are also looking at the Falcon Heavy and the upcoming Big Falcon Rocket with keen interest. Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos is already developing his own reusable orbital rocket, the New Glenn. The company owned by Amazon.com’s founder is also envisioning an even bigger launch vehicle, the New Armstrong, that would help to open the moon, Mars, and beyond to human exploration.

People are going to walk on the moon again, not in the distant future, but soon. The return of humans to the moon will be only the beginning. The flight of the Falcon Heavy has directed the world toward that future.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published the political study of space exploration, “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.