the end of a long absence; SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket was launched for the first time in three years

On Tuesday evening Iran time, Falcon Heavy flew for the first time since July 2018 and ended the long period of absence of the world’s most powerful operational missile. Powered by 27 Merlin first-stage engines, this large SpaceX rocket carried two payloads for the US Space Force into Earth orbit.

Now that today’s much-anticipated USSF-44 mission is underway, it’s only natural to ask why it’s been more than 40 months since the Falcon Heavy’s last flight. Most importantly, does this long absence indicate that SpaceX’s half-billion-dollar domestically-built Falcon Heavy was a mistake? Before answering these questions, we will review the details of today’s mission, which was launched at 17:11 Iran time.

Direct flight to geostationary orbit

USSF-44 is SpaceX’s first “direct to geostationary orbit” mission; This means that the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket launched its cargo directly into geostationary orbit at an altitude of nearly 36 thousand kilometers from the earth’s surface. Typically, such payloads are first injected into a transfer orbit, and then spacecraft propulsion is used to lift them into circular geostationary orbit. However, in today’s mission, the first and second stages of the Falcon Heavy were responsible for delivering the cargo to the final destination.

Little is known about the two spacecraft launched for the Space Force. The main secret cargo and the second cargo is a small satellite called Tetra-1; A prototype of a type of satellite that the US military hopes to one day fly in geostationary orbit to perform unknown tasks. According to AresTechnica, the Space Force simply says its spacecraft carry a variety of payloads that improve and accelerate the advancement of space technology.

What we do know is that today’s mission requires the Falcon Heavy upper stage to remain active for a much longer time than usual; In such a way that there will be approximately 6 hours between the initial ignition of the second-stage Merlin vacuum engine and its final ignition. This mission is considered a good test to show the ability of the upper stage to perform a long activity.

In previous missions, attempts were made to land the rocket’s central booster on one of SpaceX’s unmanned ships in the Atlantic Ocean; But in today’s flight, due to the mass and orbital requirements of the USSF-44 payloads, the booster landing was omitted so that maximum fuel can be provided for direct injection into the geostationary orbit. As a result, while the two lateral boosters of the Falcon Heavy landed on land after launch, the central booster went to a blue graveyard in the Atlantic after separating from the upper stage.

The reason for the long absence of Falcon Heavy

The long interval between flights did not occur due to the lack of Falcon Heavy missiles. Actually, the Falcon Heavy consists of a central stage, which is a modified version of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, and two side boosters with relatively less modifications. Although there are some other structural adaptations, SpaceX can basically manufacture new hardware and reuse old ones for as many Falcon Heavy rockets as the market wants.

It’s just that there isn’t much demand for the Falcon Heavy. In 40 months after the last Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX has launched the Falcon 9 rocket 111 times; This means that the demand for Falcon 9 is a hundred times higher. This impressive volume of further demand indicates that SpaceX, as it continues to improve the performance of the single-stage Falcon 9 rocket, has eliminated part of the potential market for the Falcon Heavy when the rocket was designed nearly a decade ago.

Simultaneous landing of side boosters of the Falcon Heavy rocket

Simultaneous landing of Falcon Heavy side boosters after the launch of the USSF-44 mission.

However, the demand is still there. The long time gap between today’s flight and the last flight was caused by problems with the cargo. The USSF-44 mission was originally scheduled for December 2020, and the Space Force’s other Falcon Heavy mission, USSF-52, was scheduled to fly in October 2021. Also, NASA and SpaceX planned to launch the Psyche asteroid mission in September this year; But the mission was delayed due to the cargo not being ready.

In fact, there is reasonable demand for a large rocket like the Falcon Heavy. According to SpaceX’s current plan, the company plans to fly the Falcon Heavy nine more times between now and the end of 2024. Some of these missions may be delayed due to the cargo not being ready; But the most powerful rocket in the world definitely has a customer.

Who are Falcon Heavy customers?

The short answer is the US government. Of the next nine missions most likely to be launched aboard Falcon Heavy, five will be for NASA, three will be for the US Space Force and two will be for commercial satellite owners.

The US military is particularly keen to use the Falcon Heavy. Although Falcon 9 is a powerful missile, it cannot deliver the cargo of the US Ministry of Defense to all 9 orbits required by this ministry. As a result, SpaceX has the upper hand with its Falcon Heavy to acquire military launch contracts in tenders. America’s only other operational missile that can compete with the Falcon Heavy is the Launch and Launch Coalition’s Delta 4 Heavy. But this rocket will be retired in two years and its successor Vulcan has not yet flown.

Of course, the Starship can reach all 9 orbits with the super heavy booster. Although SpaceX is probably still years away from building the stable configuration required of the Starship for the government, this giant rocket is definitely coming. As a result, Todd HarrisonFalcon Heavy is likely to have a limited shelf life, says senior director of Strategic Metrics Insights.

Once SpaceX’s new Super Heavy rocket is operational and has proven reliable performance to government customers, Harrison says, the Falcon Heavy will no longer be needed. He thinks the Falcon Heavy’s useful life is likely to be less than five years, and during that time we’ll see a handful of launches. However, the launch of this rocket, especially when its side boosters return to Earth at the same time, is always a fascinating and exciting event.

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Falcon Heavy has also been popular for being selected to launch some of NASA’s key science missions, including the Psyche spacecraft, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, and Europa Clipper. Almost a year ago, NASA awarded the Europa Clipper launch contract to SpaceX in 2024; An action that represented the approval of the Falcon Heavy rocket and showed that NASA has confidence in this rocket to launch its approximately four billion dollar spacecraft.

Legacy of Falcon Heavy

Perhaps the most striking aspect of NASA’s decision to launch the expensive Europa Clipper mission atop the Falcon Heavy is the rocket’s low cost. The total value of the contract for launch services was only $178 million. In fact, the choice of Falcon Heavy saved two billion dollars for American taxpayers; Because the Space Launch System, another launch device considered by NASA, costs the space agency 2.2 billion dollars for each launch.

However, Falcon Heavy has not led to the formation of a new set of scientific missions. Casey Dreyer, director of space policy at the Planetary Society, says NASA hasn’t prepared the scientific community to take advantage of a heavy, low-cost rocket. According to Dreyer, “Scientists don’t have that incentive.”

Primarily, mission planners and scientists are always concerned with keeping the cost of the spacecraft low and its mass under control, and the decision about the launch vehicle is usually left to NASA and its launch service program. Falcon Heavy has not yet lived long enough to change this situation. Dreyer says it’s possible that the larger Starship launcher, which will dramatically change the mass and volume limits of science missions, could eventually change how missions are selected.

If Starship is the future that the space industry is moving towards, Falcon Heavy is the founder of this future. With the construction of Falcon Heavy, for the first time a private company built and launched the world’s most powerful rocket. The construction of such a rocket confirmed that a launcher with a large number of first-stage engines (27) could fly. Also, the scene of two lateral boosters landing next to each other had a powerful effect in proving the importance of reusing missiles in the public mind.

Lori Garver At the time of the beginning of the serious construction of the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX was the deputy of NASA. He says that this rocket changed the mindset of space policymakers about the ability of the private sector. He just wishes this change of mindset happened sooner. According to Garver, “Launching the Europa Clipper over the Falcon Heavy instead of the SLS is a reality-based decision; But we need more of these decisions.”

Making Falcon Heavy, wrong or right?

Having said that, was it a mistake to build the Falcon Heavy missile? To answer this question, one should consider another three-stage missile called Delta 4 Heavy. Before the arrival of the Falcon Heavy, the Delta 4 Heavy was the only American rocket that could reach all the orbits required by the US Department of Defense and be used for NASA’s heaviest science missions. The Falcon Heavy now handles all of these tasks at one-third to half the price of the Delta 4 Heavy.

Delta 4 Heavy has flown 14 times since its first launch in 2004 and will be retired in two years with a total of 16 flights, mainly due to the high cost of launching. It is possible that the Falcon Heavy will have a better track record than the Delta 4 Heavy before finally giving way to the Starship. As a result, considering this perspective, not only Falcon Heavy was wrong; Rather, it was a glimpse of the future.

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