The First Commercial Launch of Falcon Heavy — Part 3: What Will It Do for Human Space Flight?

The second flight of the epic SpaceX Falcon Heavy is scheduled to fly on Tuesday, April 9th 2017. That date might still drift down the calendar a couple more days…after all rocketry is difficult, it is only the second flight and some pretty important things are riding on this. The Arbsat 6A is an expensive satellite, but there is more to it than just that.

The above photo shows the Falcon Heavy that will fly this week. Also in the photo is the charred Falcon 9 booster that flew the successful Commercial Crew test flight earlier this year and landed for refurbishment and reuse. Every booster you see in this photo are the Block 5 variant, built to be refueled and re-flown many times with a minimum of rework. While the Falcon Heavy itself is not crew rated, its side boosters are of the same design as, and are interchangeable with, the soon to be crew-rated Falcon 9 rocket. This ties their fates together. This week’s launch of the non-crew-rated Falcon Heavy will add needed data to the launch history of the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket and move SpaceX closer to qualifying Falcon 9 to fly crew to the International Space Station this summer and later other places in Earth orbit.

NASA has committed itself to the path of Commercial Crew, to the point of not paying Russia for the series of NASA crew rotations that need to take place for the ISS this year.

Boeing, NASA’s other Commercial Crew partner, is having it’s own problems with preparing their crew-rated capsule, and it will not launch crew this year.

Furthermore, SpaceX has prepared the same launch pad, 39A, for both crewed flights to the ISS and for flying Falcon Heavy. If this week’s rocket explodes on the pad it could set SpaceX back as they make repairs.

So ya, there are a lot of eggs in this basket.

In 2016, during fueling for a static fire test (pre-flight engine test), a Falcon 9 second stage ruptured a tank and exploded. This grounded that flight operations for that rocket design for several months and damaged the launch pad. The cause of the anomaly was identified and corrected, both in tank design and in fuel loading procedures. Also, when they performed the static fire last week, the Arabsat 6a payload was not on the rocket yet. That is why they pulled this rocket back indoors after the the successful test is complete. This Block 5 version of the booster, besides being more powerful than it’s predecessor, includes modifications that NASA wanted for additional precautions against the 2016 accident in preparation for it’s participation in the Commercial Crew program.

On the upside, the SpaceX design practice of using multiple engines on each rocket has made the Merlin one of the most heavily tested rockets in the world, and probably contributed to its efficiency improvements over the years. Since the rocket is landed and examined after every launch, and built for multiple re-flights, the company’s understanding of their equipment is improved. In fact some of SpaceX’s customers have even come to appreciate that a previously flown rocket has already been “flight proven”…a slap in the face to some early re-usability naysayers who claimed that re-flying rockets would be dangerous.

Even though this launch carries a fairly routine type of payload, the launch itself extends the envelope of human launch capabilities and moves the Commercial Space industry one step closer to full autonomy from Government whims. The Falcon Heavy launch for the U.S. Air Force, together with a successful certification of the Falcon 9 for carrying passengers to orbit, will finish establishing the Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in the world, as fully ready for business.

Once the Falcon 9 and Dragon begin flying people to orbit, they don’t have to just do so for the International Space Station. Bigelow Aerospace has been building and testing their own inflatable space station modules for several years now and intend to launch that business as soon as non-government rides to space become a thing this year. between private space stations, the Commercial Crew program, and the advent of inexpensive heavy lifters like the Falcon Heavy for placing private space station modules into orbit, the price of human spaceflight will soon fall to epic lows. Any large company, or even small country, will be able to buy a ticket to ride.

It all starts now!

Don’t miss the launch!

Tomorrow…

After this launch, if it is successful, what comes next? A combination of currently planned events in the Commercial Space Industry.

Click here to search all articles in this blog that speak of Falcon Heavy.

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~ by Bill Housley on April 7, 2019.

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