Musk himself has said the Heavy may blow up—and if it does, he hopes it makes it far enough away from the launchpad so that the explosion doesn’t severely damage a historic site that would no doubt be very expensive to fix. “Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another,” Musk teased in December.
Musk first unveiled the Heavy in 2011 to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The rocket would essentially be a Falcon 9 on steroids: three cores, strapped together and modified to fire and operate in unison. Musk spoke in a small room with several empty seats, gesturing in front of a small replica of the Heavy on a table behind him. He said the rocket would have twice the lift capacity of the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful rocket currently in operation, at one-third the cost. He said it would fly in 2013.
Seven years later, the setting is far more crowded. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have descended on the Space Coast for the Heavy’s maiden flight. Many more will watch the action on the livestream from around the world. The replica on the table in a poorly lit conference room is now a nearly 230-foot-tall gleaming behemoth piercing the blue Florida sky, capable of producing 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. SpaceX hasn’t let anyone get close enough to the area to snap a picture of the rocket. Press will get their chance on Monday, so good photos are on their way.
The flight of the Falcon Heavy will be the biggest test of SpaceX’s engineering yet. No rocket this powerful has attempted to launch from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle in 2011 and, before that, the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk said last year. “At first it sounds real easy. You just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be? But then everything changes.”
NASA is currently building a rocket of its own, the Space Launch System, capable of producing 8.8 million pounds at liftoff, enough to someday return humans to the moon. The SLS will surpass the Heavy in power—but not for some time. The space agency expects a maiden flight in late 2019, but a recent internal review found mid-2020 is more realistic. If the Falcon Heavy launch is successful, NASA may find itself, in the year of its 60th birthday, standing by as someone else—a commercial company—does the heavy lifting from the ground it once dominated, at least for a few years.
The Heavy launch is “a step toward history, toward restoring the capability to launch very heavy payloads at an affordable price,” says John Logsdon, a spaceflight historian who watched Apollo 11 take off from the same site in 1969.
Back then, and for many years later—perhaps not until the Falcon 9 started flying regularly and successfully in the last few years—“the idea of private development of something like this would have been basically incredulous,” Logsdon says.