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SpaceX nears launch of Falcon Heavy, facing a changing market for heavy-lift rockets

A new space race is afoot. Leading the pack is the Falcon Heavy, The most powerful rocket yet from SpaceX.

Seven years ago, Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk first publicly introduced the Falcon Heavy rocket, promising that the first launch of the 27-engine behemoth would be "pretty epic."

That day comes Tuesday, when SpaceX plans to launch the Falcon Heavy at 1:30 p.m. EST from Florida's Kennedy Space Center in its first demonstration mission. Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful U.S. rocket since the famed Saturn V, which took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

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A successful launch would vault SpaceX into the small cadre of heavy-lift rockets available throughout the world, ranging from the European Ariane 5 to United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy in the U.S.

But the commercial market for massive satellites is tight, meaning the Hawthorne space company will need to capitalize on lucrative national security launches and position itself to compete for new opportunities requiring heavy hauling capacity to maximize its investment in Falcon Heavy.

"The world has changed since 2011 when Falcon Heavy was announced," said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "Falcon Heavy has to create or facilitate a market different than the one that may have been the original intention."

SpaceX already recognizes the changing market for large commercial satellites. The company initially thought it would fly the same numbers of Falcon 9s — the rocket that forms the three engine cores of the new, larger rocket — as Falcon Heavys. But that ratio is turning out to be about two to three times more Falcon 9 commercial missions, especially as upgrades to the Falcon 9 have made that rocket more powerful.

"There is a part of the commercial market that requires Falcon Heavy," Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said during an interview with The Times last summer. "It's there, and it's going to be consistent, but it's much smaller than we thought."

New markets for Falcon Heavy could include NASA planetary missions. Last year, Musk said the rocket would be used to send two tourists around the moon, and analysts have questioned whether Falcon Heavy could factor into the Trump administration's call to NASA to return to the moon.

In a press call Monday afternoon, Musk said Falcon Heavy will likely not be needed for crewed flights like the moon tourism mission since development of the company's even larger rocket system, known as BFR, is progressing quickly enough.

SpaceX's BFR system — a more than 500-foot-tall reusable booster and rocket that will eventually replace the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon spacecraft — is intended to be used for Musk's Mars colonization plans.

Once operational, Falcon Heavy will likely compete largely against a few heavy-lift rockets. On the commercial side, Arianespace's Ariane 5 heavy launcher can hoist more than 44,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.

 
  (Raoul Rañoa)

The Ariane 5's trademark is its ability to launch two satellites in a single mission, making it a popular and cost-effective option for commercial satellite operators, said Phil Smith, space industry analyst at Bryce Space and Technology. NASA plans to launch its $8.8-billion James Webb Space Telescope on an Ariane 5 rocket next year.

The Ariane 5 is also considered extremely reliable, despite an anomaly during a late January launch that placed two satellites in different orbits than originally planned. Operators and manufacturers for the two satellites said plans were in place to get the satellites to the proper orbit, and Arianespace has said it set up an independent commission chaired by the general inspector of the European Space Agency to investigate the "trajectory deviation."

Massive U.S. national security satellites that require a bigger rocket than SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 or the Atlas V, made by a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., rely on ULA's Delta IV Heavy.

With 2.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff and a payload capacity of 62,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, the Delta IV Heavy has been the rocket of choice for the heaviest spy satellites and other sensitive payloads for the U.S. government.

However, the rocket is costly to produce — its burnt-orange foam insulation must be applied by hand and the rocket production line is large and complex — and is being phased out.

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The launch cost of a Falcon Heavy starts at $90 million, while its smaller Falcon 9 starts at $62 million. The starting price for ULA's smaller Atlas V is advertised at $109 million.

On Monday, Musk said the low starting cost for the Falcon Heavy is derived from the ability to reuse elements such as the rocket booster cores. If the company is successful in offering increased heavy-lift capability for not much additional cost than a Falcon 9, Musk said it would be "game over" for other heavy-lift rockets.

The Falcon Heavy could also compete against Russia's Proton-M rocket for commercial launches, as well as several new heavy-lift rockets that are in development, said Smith of Bryce Space and Technology. These include ULA's Vulcan, which would eventually replace its intermediate and heavy-lift rockets, and Blue Origin's New Glenn, which is being envisioned in two-stage and three-stage versions.

On Monday, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno and Jeff Bezos, head of Blue Origin, tweeted good luck messages to SpaceX, with Bezos saying he was "hoping for a beautiful, nominal flight." Musk, SpaceX's chief executive, responded with a simple "Thanks," along with a kissing face emoji.

A failure on a new rocket's first flight is not uncommon and likely would not doom the Falcon Heavy program, analysts said.

"It's not a make-or-break for the program," Logsdon said. "If there's a failure, it's not a catastrophe."

Musk has already tried to temper expectations, noting the difficulties of wrangling the rocket's three engine cores and saying there was a "good chance" Falcon Heavy did not make it to orbit on its first try.

On Monday, he posted on Instagram a video simulation of the launch, saying the rocket will launch toward Mars. In typical Musk fashion, the payload for Tuesday's flight is his midnight cherry Tesla Roadster, which will travel on a "billion year journey through deep space," he said on Instagram, "if it doesn't explode into tiny pieces."

Musk said on the Monday call that it would be a "real huge downer if it blows up," but that he hoped the company would learn as much as possible from the mission data.

SpaceX will also attempt to land all three first-stage boosters — two on land and one on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket's two side boosters have been recycled from previous Falcon 9 missions.

For Logsdon, the launch will be a chance to compare powerful rockets from past and present. Years ago, he watched Apollo 11, 14 and 17 launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. He will be there Tuesday to see Falcon Heavy launch from the same spot.

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Logsdon remembers how the Saturn V seemed to hang in the air as it lifted off from the pad, unlike the quick acceleration of the space shuttle rocket and its solid strap-on boosters.

"I'm very curious how this compares in terms of spectacle," he said.

Twitter: @smasunaga

UPDATES:

3:25 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from company Chief Executive Elon Musk during a press call Monday afternoon.

This article was originally published at 11:40 a.m.

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