Witnessing History – SpaceX

by | Feb 7, 2018 | Space | 3 comments

Witnessing History

HistoryIf you’re fortunate to live long enough, you’ll have numerous events that may seem historic at the moment that actually stand the test of time and retain that cherished “Historic Moment” description.

Events can span the broad spectrum of human existence – science, technology, politics, sports, etc. Sometimes they are public and everyone gets to partake or at least experience remotely. Sometimes they are limited to only a small group of people. Sometimes they are limited to a VERY small group of people – and sometimes only historic to a single individual.

Sometimes, these events are positive – Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, your favorite sports team winning a championship, the birth of a child or grandchild, etc.

Sometimes, these events are profoundly heart-breaking – JFK assassination, the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the attacks of 9/11, the death of a loved one, etc.

Yesterday, February 6, 2018, we witnessed a major advance in the steps of human exploration of space.

Falcon Heavy

Falcon Heavy launch

SpaceX successfully launched the first test flight of their Falcon Heavy booster from the historic KSC Launch Complex 39A.

LC39A is historic, in that it was used for every manned Apollo launch (starting with Apollo 8), including all of the Lunar Landing missions. It was then reconfigured to support the Space Shuttle Program, starting with STS-1 and ending with the last Shuttle mission (STS-135). LC39B was used for several Apollo missions and numerous Shuttle launches, but it was very fitting that Falcon Heavy launched from LC39A.

Falcon Heavy was designed and built by SpaceX – the commercial space endeavour run by Elon Musk. It builds upon their inspirational successes of the Falcon 9 booster system, including the engine improvements and the very impressive fly-back and booster vertical landing capabilities that have both impressed and inspired all who have been following.

US Launch Vehicle comparisons

The overall Falcon Heavy structure is huge – rising to almost 230 feet above the Pad. By comparison, the massive Apollo Saturn V clocked in at 363 feet tall. Payload capacity is also impressive – with projections making Falcon Heavy the most capable provider of mass-to-orbit on the planet today.

Just from the visual appearance alone, Falcon Heavy is a big bird. 🙂

Test Launch

With any new space launch system, there really should be a progressive series of launches that prove technologies, provide lessons to learn, and set up future successes. The Space Shuttle was, of course, the daring exception to this rule, with the first flight being STS-1, crewed with John Young and Bob Crippen.

The Falcon Heavy test launch of February 6, 2018 was another stepping stone for SpaceX in proving not only the next evolutionary step of their launch system, but also proving they’re not just a LEO (Low Earth Orbit) payload delivery system.

Elon Musk has in mind a grander destination. Mars.

The goals for this Test Launch were (at least) two-fold:
(1) Test the new launch system, including fly-back and reusable boosters building on the past year’s worth of successes with Falcon 9, and
(2) Once in orbit, show an interplanetary boost capability that would put the payload into a resultant heliocentric orbit with the apoapsis (furthest point in an elliptical orbit) at or near Mars’ average orbital distance from the Sun.

Falcon Heavy Launch

They absolutely, positively, killed that first goal. Falcon Heavy *thundered* off LC39A and into the sky on an extremely impressive triplet of flames. Similar to Space Shuttle launches, the two side boosters (“side cores” in the SpaceX vernacular) separated approximately 2:33 after launch. As they did during Falcon 9 launches, each booster executed a “boostback burn” that set them on a return trajectory to the launch site.

Unlike the Space Shuttle RTLS (Return To Launch Site) capability, which was intended as an abort capability and thankfully never used, these side cores were always *intended* to perform these maneuvers and be recovered in a fully-intact upright landing position.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch trajectory

Falcon Heavy side core simultaneous landings

We’ve seen the Falcon 9 single booster landing done numerous times now by SpaceX. Each time as impressive as the last, but becoming more and more commonplace and expected.

Seeing *both* side cores return to side-by-side landing pads recently installed near LC39A at almost the EXACT time was the realm of Science-Fiction. Having live video up and down, and transitioning to the oblique external view at the time of landing was surreal.

The central core was intended to land on the floating barge “Of Course I Still Love You”, as had several other Falcon 9 test and operational flights over the past year. As of this writing, the center core was lost due to a premature loss of propellant required for the braking/landing maneuvers, leading to a crash landing of the center core about 100 yards away from the landing barge. SpaceX is still investigating and, I’m certain, will determine the cause and recover from it on future flights.

Falcon Heavy – Roadster heliocentric trajectory

The second goal was, well, “close”. All pre-flight releases said that the Tesla Roadster would be cycling in a heliocentric orbit between the Earth and Mars orbital distances. After the fact, the actual trajectory was well past Mars’ orbit – venturing into the asteroid belt.

Elon, being Elon, made a statement that (after the fact) they had always intended to burn the upper stage “to completion”. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here that there was just a, perhaps uncorrected, perception that the targeted orbit was to be *at/near* Mars.

Tesla in Space

Starman – in-car view

One of the most visual aspects of the Falcon Heavy launch test was the use of Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster as the payload “ballast”. Usually, test launches carry uniform “dead weight” to simulate what the ultimate payload (capsule, crew, etc.) would weight. In this case, Elon upped the ante once again.

The visuals of this car, complete with “Starman” in a SpaceX spacesuit nestled comfortably in the driver’s seat, brought a level of excitement to the launch that even exceeded the expectations of the launch views.

Once in orbit – LIVE views of Starman, looking every bit the cool eponymous subject of David Bowie’s famous song, were broadcast to the entire world. Rotation of the upper stage, relative to the Earth, brought our blue disk across the background – making it look like Starman was driving around the world in orbit.

Absolutely phenomenal.

Why was this important?

SpaceX accomplished a completely impressive and highly visual successful flight of Falcon Heavy.

In 2009, President Obama commissioned a “Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee“. This was a long-winded name for the more commonly named “Augustine Commission” to review the human spaceflight plans for the United States. After the Commission presented their final findings, the President rejected plans to return to the Moon and called for development of a new heavy lift launch system, which eventually morphed into the Space Launch System, to be ready for construction in 2015 and manned missions to Mars by the mid-2030s.

SLS continues through development stages, but to date has expended almost 12 billion dollars (US) over the course of the first 7 years.

By contrast, SpaceX now has a proven launch vehicle that will rival any planned SLS that is ready now at a fraction of the planned SLS cost. This is huge.

Suddenly, returning to the Moon is viable.

Shockingly, putting men and women onto Mars is completely within our grasp.

SpaceX Mars Lander Concept

In the last week or so, I’ve spent a couple of blog posts talking about “Remembrance” of our fallen space exploration heroes and “Now What?” to honor them.

I think that’s now been answered. We need to grasp this opportunity, seize the momentum, and push forward into space again with a renewed and revitalized vigor.

Does that responsibility belong to SpaceX? Does it belong to NASA? Is it the responsibility of some other country?

I think we’ve seen that the overall direction of Manned Spaceflight has almost stagnated over the past 20 years. Maybe it’s time for a fresh perspective.

Falcon Heavy may have just shown that to us.

Let’s go. I’m ready.

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  1. Jason Dendy

    Fantastic read!

  2. Robert Gedford

    I’m a fan of SpaceX and space exploration. But I agree that NASA needs to rethink SLS and maybe let private companies take over the launch business.


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