When the world's most powerful rocket leaves the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida sometime over the next few weeks, odds are good that its maiden voyage will fall well short of the vacuum of space.
"There's a real good chance the vehicle won't make it to orbit ... I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in July 2017. "I would consider even that a win, to be honest."
Called the Falcon Heavy, the massive 230-foot triple-core booster is the latest to join SpaceX's growing fleet of commercial launch vehicles. Its purpose not only includes shuttling extremely heavy payloads into low-Earth orbit, but one day carrying humans into space on missions to the Moon and Mars.
Powering the rocket are 27 kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D engines, capable of generating an astounding 5.1 million pounds of thrust during launch. This gives the Falcon Heavy the ability to lift more than twice the payload (up to 140,700 pounds) of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost.
Despite these savings, those interested in leveraging the power of SpaceX's new rocket should save their pennies: The base price of your standard launch will start at a cool $90 million.
Known for having a bit of fun in his efforts to transform the commercial space industry (see last year's blooper reel showing off the explosive early failures of its Falcon 9 booster), Elon Musk was determined to do something a bit different for the dummy payload of the inaugural Falcon Heavy.
"Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks," he wrote in an Instagram post. "That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel."
To this end, Musk decided to make his original cherry Tesla Roadster, one of only 2,450 ever made, the payload.
"Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing ‘Space Oddity.’ Destination is Mars orbit," he added. "Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent."
Something tells us David Bowie would be proud.
Before its maiden launch could be given the green light, SpaceX needed to conduct a brief static fire test of all 27 Merlin engines. The video below shows the launch vehicle successfully completing the test. With the rocket clamped in place, this will give engineers for the first time ever an opportunity to gauge pressure, temperature and flow of the propellant at full thrust.
As CNET noted, "It's kind of like flooring the gas pedal of a muscle car for just a few seconds with a super heavy-duty parking brake engaged."
Essentially based off of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, engineering the Falcon Heavy turned out to be more complicated than initially anticipated.
"At first it sounds real easy, you just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters, but then everything changes," Musk said in July. "All the loads change, aerodynamics totally change. You've tripled the vibration and acoustics. You sort of break the qualification levels on so much of the hardware.
"The amount of load you're putting through that center core is crazy because you've got two super-powerful boosters also shoving that center core, so we had to redesign the whole center core airframe. It's not like the Falcon 9 because it's got to take so much load. Then you've got separation systems."
In an effort to reduce costs, the boosters on the Falcon Heavy will feature the same reusable launch system that SpaceX pioneered on the Falcon 9. Each core includes four extendable landing legs, as well as grid fins to help control the descent of the boosters and center core back through the atmosphere.
According to SpaceX engineer Hans Koenigsmann, those who enjoy watching the first stage of the Falcon 9 return to Earth are in for a treat with the Falcon Heavy.
The casual observer will see a rocket rise up and see two side boosters coming back — that's going to be phenomenal," he told Zeit Online. "The core stage will land on a ship and only a very small part, the second stage, will deliver the cargo in orbit. This takes reusability to a new level: it will be the same engines and parts of the same hardware as the Falcon 9. It is a real relief when the engines of various companions are similar. This saves costs."
It's important to note that the Falcon Heavy's full payload maximum is achievable only when the entire rocket is fully expendable. So it won't always be the case that we'll see the boosters return to Earth and land.
If the initial flight is successful, SpaceX has scheduled missions for 2018 that include the launch of a Saudi Arabian communications satellite (early 2018), military certification launch with secondary payloads of various scientific satellites (June 2018,) and most interesting, a possible round-the-moon launch for two private citizens.
"We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the Moon late next year," the company wrote in February 2017. "They have already paid a significant deposit to do a Moon mission. Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration."
Editor's Note: This blog has been updated since it was originally published in January 2018.