Why This Week's Big Rocket Launch May Make History

If all goes to plan, the newest member of SpaceX's fleet could become the most powerful rocket since the one that sent humans to the moon.

UPDATE: The February 6 launch attempt is now slated for 3:45 p.m. ET.

More than 50 years after the Saturn V rocket sent humans to the moon, launchpad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center may once again become a backdrop to history. If all goes well on Tuesday afternoon, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket will soar into space in a most peculiar way—carrying a cherry-red Tesla Roadster blaring David Bowie.

After a six-hour coast, the Tesla would then head into what's known as a Hohmann transfer orbit around the sun—arcing between the paths of Earth and Mars for potentially millions of years. Through it all, three cameras aboard the Tesla will hopefully capture the scene.

If successful, the Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two, capable of launching more than 140,000 pounds of cargo—and one day perhaps passengers—into low-Earth orbit. Only the Saturn V, the workhorse of the Apollo moon missions, has lifted more mass into orbit. (See rare views of the moon captured by Apollo astronauts.)

“It will be the most significant test flight since 1967, which was the first test of Saturn V,” says John Logsdon, a space-policy expert at George Washington University.

The window for attempting the launch opens up at 1:30 p.m. ET on February 6. If necessary, the launch may move to February 7 or later. You can tune in to this SpaceX livestream to see events unfold.

Watch the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Test Flight Live

A lot can go wrong, as SpaceX CEO and flamethrower tycoon Elon Musk has emphasized leading up to the launch. If the rocket were to explode on launchpad 39A, the conflagration not only would destroy the Falcon Heavy, but also the pad that sent off the Saturn V and NASA's space shuttle fleet. This mayhem would also derail SpaceX's long-delayed plan to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

A launchpad explosion “would not only destroy a piece of heritage, but set back human spaceflight for a long time,” says Logsdon. “People say that NASA takes no risks anymore; they specifically took this one.”

Other, less explosive routes to failure exist. Once the rocket reaches the speed of sound, the trio of boosters may shake one another unexpectedly. Overlapping shock waves could then deal the rocket fatal damage.

It's also possible that the Tesla Roadster won't leave our immediate neighborhood. Before sending the car on its way toward Mars, the rocket's upper stage must spend six grueling hours floating through the Van Allen belt, where Earth's magnetic field traps high-energy radiation flung off the sun. Will the rocket's upper stage be able to survive the beating and re-fire?

These unsettling scenarios are enough to give the launch what Musk has called a “major pucker factor.” But in a press briefing on Monday, Musk seemed at peace.

“What's strange about this flight is that normally, I feel super stressed-out the day before. But this time, I don't,” he says. “I'm sure we've done everything we could do to maximize the chance of success of this mission.”

Reduce, Reuse

If the Falcon Heavy does succeed, it will serve as a potent symbol for private enterprise's rush into space—which SpaceX has shaken up by emphasizing reusability.

Most rockets are designed with multiple parts, or stages, that help get the main compartment carrying the payload—the satellites and crew capsules—into space. The stages usually break away and fall back to Earth when they are spent. In many cases, those stages cannot be safely reused.

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Here's how the SpaceX Falcon Heavy stacks up against some of the other heavy-lift launch vehicles that have successfully carried cargo and, in some cases, crew into orbit (click to enlarge).

But since 2008, SpaceX has set a number of spaceflight firsts with its Falcon 9 rocket, including successfully recovering and reusing some of its rocket stages. Just as airlines don't build a new plane for every trip across country, the hope is to no longer build a new rocket for every launch. In this way, reusability is key to bringing down the costs of space travel.

Since the Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets pinned together, SpaceX hopes to return all three of its first stages. If all goes to plan, the two side boosters—which have been recycled from previous Falcon 9 launches—will split off and return to landing sites on land. Later, the center first stage will land separately on Of Course I Still Love You, SpaceX's whimsically named drone ship.

What does all this power and panache cost? Surprisingly little, relative to other companies.

SpaceX says that without any extra bells and whistles, a Falcon Heavy launch would cost some $90 million. By contrast, the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket costs at least $350 million per launch but offers only half the Falcon Heavy's payload weight.

“It's been a total shot across the bow,” says Logsdon.

Even before Falcon Heavy's first test, several companies signed up for its services. The rocket is slated to launch Arabsat 6a, a Saudi Arabian communications satellites, as well as payloads for the companies Inmarsat and Viasat. In addition, SpaceX has a $160-million contract with the U.S. Air Force to launch STP-2, a variety pack of satellites that includes a hyper-accurate atomic clock designed for deep space and a network of satellites that will monitor Earth's atmosphere.

“If we're successful in this, it is game over,” says Musk. “It'd be like ... if one aircraft company had reusable aircraft and all the other aircraft companies were single-use, you parachuted out at your destination, and your plane randomly crashed somewhere.”

Sizing Up

Despite the Falcon Heavy's impressive specs, it may fly far fewer missions than Elon Musk originally anticipated when he announced the rocket in 2011. This is because SpaceX has squeezed much more performance out of its Falcon 9 rocket, letting it launch a wider variety of satellites.

“One of the major markets for Falcon Heavy has more or less disappeared,” says Logsdon. “Falcon Heavy is just an interim step in SpaceX evolution, rather than a sustained part of their product line.”

What's next? The BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, a behemoth that can deliver nearly 30 percent more payload into low-Earth orbit than the Falcon Heavy. The BFR is also the lynchpin in Elon Musk's ambitious plan to send humans to the moon and Mars.

Meanwhile, The Verge and Ars Technica note that the Falcon Heavy would be perfect for sending scientific instruments deeper into the solar system. While the SLS, NASA's in-house megarocket, will be able to launch bigger payloads with more oomph, it's also estimated to cost anywhere between $1 billion to $3 billion per launch, so it's possible the Falcon Heavy or other rockets will outcompete the SLS.

Space Haulers

For all its practical import, the Falcon Heavy is also significant for what it represents: the vanguard of an ever-widening effort to explore and commercialize space.

Orbital ATK is already flying its own Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule. By 2020, Jeff Bezos's rocket company Blue Origin will have its orbital-class New Glenn ready to compete with the Falcon 9. Bigelow Aerospace is hard at work perfecting its inflatable space habitats. And on one of its first test flights, Rocket Labs successfully launched small satellites—including a highly reflective “disco ball”—into orbit.

“It’s great that there’s a range of capabilities, from a little pickup up to an 18-wheeler, for transporting things into space,” says Logsdon. “It means that people have optimism that we're going to be active in space.

“These things are just trucks, after all,” he adds. “They’re not the end product.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include comment from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk given at a February 5 press briefing.