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Flightline Friday: SpaceX Static Fires the Mighty Falcon Heavy January 26, 2018

Posted by Tantumblogo in awesomeness, Flightline Friday, fun, non squitur, silliness, technology.

I haven’t done a Flightline Friday in ages.  Well, some important recent aerospace news – SpaceX, finally, after years of delays, appears about set to launch the Falcon Heavy rocket sometime in the next few weeks. The full stack was static fired for the first time on Wednesday – and they did it at Launch Complex 39A, from which all but one Saturn V launches took place.

The Falcon Heavy is not as powerful as the Saturn V, but it is in the same league.  It produces over 5 million pounds of thrust, to the Saturn V’s 7.7+ million (on Apollo 15).  The Space Shuttle stack made just over 7 million pounds, but most of that was from solid rockets, which are boring, and the Space Shuttle doesn’t fly anymore, so there.

Falcon Heavy, with 27 Merlin engines, will be able to loft about 70 tons into low earth orbit, and nearly 30 tons to geosynchronous orbit.  It also has very substantial capacities for escape velocity – about 25 tons to the Moon and 19 tons to Mars.  Those are the capacities with full expendability – no returning and landing any of the stages.  With reuse, the capacities are substantially reduced, especially to GTO and escape velocity.  Generally, the Falcon Heavy has capacities almost exactly half those of the Saturn V – one handicap is that SpaceX continues to use a relatively low energy upper stage powered by hydrocarbons, whereas Saturn V upper stages were cryogenic and powered by liquid hydrogen.   They also had way more thrust, especially the spectacular S-II stage.

Anyhoo, even though the test was very short, shock waves in the flame trenches of Launch Complex 39 like this have not been seen in over 45 years:

I cannot wait for one of these to launch from Boca Chica.  I will so be in South Padre, if SpaceX ever gets moving on their south Texas launch site.  Apparently the sand there is unusually unstable and they’ve had to do a lot more soil prep than they planned.  The bedrock is much deeper than thought, too – which, guys, the Rio Grande has been running through 1000+ miles of desert for thousands of years, that’s a lot of sand to dump into the Gulf, but whatever.  They say they are going to finally get started in earnest this year.  We’ll see.



1. John Bakas - January 27, 2018

Thanks for the memories. I lived in Rockledge from 1963 to 1969 and saw the first uncrewed Apollo 4 rollout through Apollo 8’s fantastic around the moon flight. At least that’s what I found on the Internet when I was trying to remember which Apollo was the first rollout of the entire Saturn V.

I will never forget the impact of seeing that giant creep along. It made every other rocket I had ever seen look like toys. And when it launched, nothing was like it. I still remember how it pounded my chest.

From 1967 to 1969 I worked at the Space Center. There was a sense about the place, the people, and the work.

I saw the first Shuttle launch years later in 1981. Nice and zippy, but it was though they had lost sight of something.

Anyway, thanks for the excellent details on the mighty Saturn. Those were the days when giants walked the land and flew in the heavens. Nothing like it has been seen even to this day.

2. Richard Malcolm - January 27, 2018

“… most of that was from solid rockets, which are boring…”

And dangerous. Even though NASA was able to fix the O Ring flaw after they killed seven astronauts on the Challenger, solid rockets remain inherently risky to launch crew with. You can’t shut off the engines once they’re lit; and any RUD event involving them is so rapid that they pose a great risk of overwhelming even robust Launch Escape Systems – something the Air Force pointed out in 2010 when NASA was still developing (unwisely) the Ares I crew vehicle launcher as part of Project Constellation. The only reason NASA used them with the Shuttle was to save money – they could not secure the funding to develop liquid fuel boosters.

“… one handicap is that SpaceX continues to use a relatively low energy upper stage powered by hydrocarbons…”

It *is* a weakness, though in context, an understandable one. The real business case for Falcon Heavy is mostly addressed to heavy comsat payloads for Earth orbit (LEO or GTO) – for which, a high energy second stage is much less necessary. Of course, even so, it can still put some very respectable payloads in cislunar or even Martian space, or you can simply resign yourself to multiple launches to send up a high energy booster (like a Centaur) separately. The beauty of FH is that it’s so cheap to operate (and cost the taxpayers zero dollars to develop) that even this is a *vastly* more affordable option than any NASA developed launcher could do on one launch. A Falcon Heavy launch starts out at $90 million, which is about 1/11 the cost (inflation adjusted) of a Saturn V launch, and probably anywhere from 15 to 40 times cheaper than the SLS monster rocket NASA is spending billions to develop right now.

All that said, I do think SpaceX *would* be proceeding with a Raptor-based high energy upper stage for Falcon Heavy, if it weren’t for the fact that they seem committed to putting all their resources into their giant BFR/BFS architecture.

I am extremely excited to see the Heavy lift off in two weeks. I’m too young to have ever seen a Saturn V take off.

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