Tomorrow is a very big day for private spaceflight, and for space exploration in general.
If all goes according to plan, SpaceX's huge new Falcon Heavy rocket will launch for the first time ever tomorrow (Feb. 6), rising off Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a three-hour window that opens at 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT). You can watch the liftoff live here at Space.com, courtesy of SpaceX, or directly via SpaceX.
The powerful Heavy is a potentially transformational vehicle, spaceflight experts say, so its maiden flight will be watched carefully and eagerly by many sets of eyes. [In Photos: SpaceX's 1st Falcon Heavy Rocket Readies for Launch]
"It's a tremendous, monumental milestone for SpaceX and the commercial industry," Eric Stallmer, president of the nonprofit Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), told Space.com. "This is a changing moment."
A long road
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced the company's plans to develop the Falcon Heavy in 2011. Back then, he predicted it could be flying as early as 2013.
Such optimism didn't seem unreasonable at the time. After all, the 230-foot-tall (70 meters) Heavy is basically an extension of SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 launcher: It links two Falcon 9 first stages to a central core, which itself is a modified Falcon 9.
"At first, it sounds really easy: Just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be?" Musk said at a conference last summer.
The answer? Pretty hard, actually.
"But then everything changes," Musk explained. "All the loads change, aerodynamics totally change; you've tripled the vibration and acoustics."
So it took a while for the Falcon Heavy to come together. But come together it has, and the launcher is now ready for its debut — a shakeout cruise that will attempt to deliver a cherry-red Tesla Roadster into a highly elliptical orbit around the sun. (Musk also runs the electric-car company Tesla.)
That orbit will bring the car close to Mars from time to time. This is a nod to Musk's long-stated goal of helping humanity settle the Red Planet, as is the Roadster's color. (SpaceX is already developing the Heavy's successor — a giant Mars-settling rocket-spaceship combo called the BFR.)
There's no guarantee that things will go according to plan tomorrow, of course; maiden launches of new rockets don't always go so well. Indeed, Musk has taken pains to lower expectations for the Heavy's debut.
"I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage," he said at that conference last summer. "I would consider even that a win, to be honest."
A failure tomorrow probably wouldn't have too big an impact on SpaceX or the Heavy's future, provided the company figures out what went wrong and fixes it in short order, said Scott Hubbard, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and the editor of the peer-reviewed journal New Space.
"I wouldn't see that as a showstopper," Hubbard, who also restructured NASA's Mars-exploration program after several high-profile failures in the 1990s, told Space.com. (Disclosure: Hubbard has an affiliation with SpaceX. He chairs the company's commercial-crew safety panel.) [SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Rocket in Images]
Reasons for excitement
The Falcon Heavy will be capable of lofting more than 70 tons (63.5 metric tons) of payload to low-Earth orbit (LEO), and nearly 29.5 tons (26.8 metric tons) to geostationary transfer orbit, according to SpaceX's spec sheet.
The Heavy will therefore be the most powerful American rocket since NASA's famous Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the moon back in the Apollo days.
That immense power is part of the reason for all the excitement. Another factor is the Heavy's low price tag: $90 million. For comparison, the most powerful rocket operating today — United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy, which can loft nearly 32 tons (29 metric tons) to LEO — costs between $300 million and $500 million, said CSF Executive Director Tommy Sanford.
"The difference in using a Falcon Heavy versus a Delta IV Heavy — you can buy an entire other satellite," with the savings, Sanford told Space.com.
SpaceX has also developed the Heavy to be compatible with crewed missions. In fact, the company announced last year that it had signed a deal to fly two as-yet-unnamed people on a trip around the moon before the end of 2018, using the Falcon Heavy and the company's Dragon capsule. (SpaceX also holds a contract to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but those taxi trips will involve the Falcon 9.)
So, the Heavy could help open up lots of spaceflight opportunities, from crewed moon missions to the robotic exploration of deep-space targets such as Saturn's potentially life-supporting moon Enceladus, experts say.
"This isn't just a new tool," Stallmer said. "It's a whole new toolbag."
A new era
The Falcon Heavy isn't the only big new rocket on the horizon. Blue Origin, the spaceflight company run by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is developing its own heavy-lifter, known as New Glenn. That powerful launcher is on track to start flying in the 2020s, company representatives have said.
And NASA is building a megarocket called the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS and its companion Orion capsule will help astronauts get to deep-space destinations like Mars, agency officials have said. Like New Glenn, SLS is expected to fly for the first time in 2020.
If all three rockets do get up and running soon, space exploration could take a big leap, Hubbard said.
"There's nothing like competition to open up opportunities," he said. "Having multiple heavy lifts out there may finally — after discussing this for decades — push the space community past the inflection point where there just weren't enough launches to make it routine."