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SpaceX shoots for 'next big thing'

SpaceX

An artist's conception shows the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in flight, with two strap-on boosters.

Last updated at 2:30 p.m. ET:

SpaceX's millionaire founder says his company's "next big thing" will be the most powerful rocket in the world, putting massive payloads into orbit for much less money than its competitors. And maybe to the moon and Mars as well.

The Falcon Heavy rocket has been on the drawing boards for years — but today's announcement by Elon Musk, SpaceX's chief executive officer and chief technology officer, signaled that the concept was on its way from the drawing boards to the launch pad.

Musk told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington that the first Falcon Heavy could be delivered to the launch pad toward the end of next year, with the launch coming during 2013. Musk said the first demonstration would take place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That launch may be conducted at SpaceX's expense, purely as a demonstration, or there may be a payload customer. Musk said launches from SpaceX's Florida complex could begin in late 2013 or 2014 

The 227-foot-tall, liquid-fueled heavy-lifter would be capable of putting more than 50 tons into low Earth orbit — which would surpass the Delta 4 Heavy's 25-ton capacity and the yet-to-be-built Atlas 5 Heavy's 32 tons. The space shuttle system, which uses a combination of onboard engines and solid rocket boosters, has a payload capacity of just 25 tons, about half of the Falcon Heavy's anticipated lifting power.

That 50-ton capacity — actually, as much as 117,000 pounds, or 58.5 U.S. tons (53 metric tons) — is a substantial increase over the Falcon Heavy's previously anticipated capability, Musk said. He said that was the result of his recent design work on the rocket.

"This is a rocket of truly huge scale," Musk said. In a news release, SpaceX noted that 117,000 pounds is more than the maximum takeoff weight of a fully loaded Boeing 737-200 with 136 passengers. "In other words, Falcon Heavy can deliver the equivalent of an entire commercial airplane full of passengers, crew luggage and fuel all the way to orbit," SpaceX said.

Back to the moon?
Musk said the Falcon Heavy's capacity would open up new horizons in spaceflight ... or reopen hoped-for horizons that have faded over the decades.

"It's more payload than any vehicle in history apart from the Saturn 5," Musk noted. The now-defunct Saturn 5, which powered NASA's moonshots in the 1960s and 1970s, had about twice the payload capacity of the Falcon Heavy — leading Musk to observe that two Falcon Heavy launches could set up a next-generation moon mission. (The Russian Energia rocket also exceeded the Falcon Heavy's projected launch capacity.)

Musk said the Falcon Heavy and SpaceX's Dragon capsule could be combined for a "really cool mission, which would be a lunar flyby." Such an operation would involve sending the spacecraft to make a loop around the moon and come back to Earth.

'Everyday low prices'
The big difference is cost: The price tag for a Falcon Heavy launch is estimated at $80 million to $125 million, compared with up to $187 million for an Atlas 5 and roughly $1 billion for a shuttle mission. The result is that the cost of putting payloads into orbit could approach $1,000 per pound, which has been a mythical price point for access to outer space. "It's not so mythical any more," Musk said.

Musk joked that traditional rocket providers treated the launch contract process "like a rug bazaar, where they'll charge you what they think you can afford." In contrast, he said, SpaceX would offer "everyday low prices."

The Falcon Heavy's first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores modeled on SpaceX's Falcon 9 design. The heavy-lifter would be equipped with plumbing that could move propellant from the side boosters to the center core. "The net effect is that Falcon Heavy achieves performance comparable to a three-stage rocket," SpaceX said. 

In the short term, the rocket would be offered as an alternative to the Atlas 5 or the Delta 4 for the U.S. Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. For now, SpaceX isn't offering the Falcon Heavy as a vehicle for crewed flight, although Musk said the rocket was "designed to meet NASA human rating standards."

"It can launch people if need be, and do so safely," he said.

Eventually, the Falcon Heavy could take on a robotic mission to bring samples back from Mars, Musk said. "The payload to Mars would be about a quarter of the payload to LEO [low Earth orbit]," he noted.

SpaceX's past and future
The announcement of a new rocket project is usually surrounded by uncertainties. For example, will SpaceX be able to hold to its development schedule? How much of a market is there for the rocket, and what market niche will it fill?

Musk, who earned his fortune in the dot-com industry, founded SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) in 2002 as a low-cost competitor to aerospace giants such as Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co. (which offer the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4, respectively, through a joint venture called the United Launch Alliance). SpaceX's Falcon 1 didn't register a fully successful orbital launch until the fourth try, and the development schedule for the Falcon 9 rocket had to be repeatedly extended. But the Falcon 9 was successful with its very first launch, and SpaceX's Dragon capsule went into orbit and splashed down without a problem during the second Falcon 9 mission last December.

NASA is providing $278 million to SpaceX for the development of the Falcon 9 and the Dragon as a resupply system for the International Space Station. If SpaceX passes muster, it would be in line for $1.6 billion in NASA resupply contracts through 2016. The Dragon-Falcon 9 launch system also may be used eventually to transport astronauts to and from the station, if SpaceX receives sufficient funding from NASA's Commercial Crew Development program. (NASA may provide details about the next phase of funding in that program as early as Wednesday.)

Looking beyond NASA, SpaceX has piled up more than $2.5 billion in satellite launch contracts, including a half-billion-dollar deal with the Iridium telecom venture.

So what about the Falcon Heavy? During today's news conference, some questioned whether there was enough of a market to justify building a launcher for 50-ton payloads. Musk said the heavy-lifter would have to be launched at least four times a year to cover the overhead for SpaceX's current price schedule. He's clearly counting on getting some of the Air Force's business, in addition to heavy-lift jobs from NASA and private-sector players such as Bigelow Aerospace.

The Falcon Heavy doesn't quite satisfy the requirements that Congress laid out for the heavy-lift rocket it wants NASA to build by 2016 for exploration beyond Earth orbit. The legislation requires a payload capacity of 70 to 100 metric tons. In January, NASA signaled that it couldn't build such a rocket within Congress' budget and timetable. However, the space agency promised to provide a more detailed report after sifting through a sheaf of feasibility studies, including one conducted by SpaceX.

Musk said SpaceX has been looking into the design of a "super heavy" rocket that could put 150 metric tons into low Earth orbit, or send Apollo-scale payloads to the moon or Mars. Such a rocket would be 50 percent more capable than the Saturn 5 and easily satisfy Congress' payload requirements.

"We're exploring with NASA how to do 150-metric-ton orbit capability, but do it rapidly" and at a cost of less than $1,000 per pound of payload, Musk said.


This report has been amended to mention Russia's Energia rocket and remove a reference to Apollo 8 as a parallel for the theoretical Falcon Heavy circumlunar mission.

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