With the iconic Space Shuttle program set to retire later this year after more than 130 flights and lots of talk about NASA budget cuts and moving space exploration to the private sector, it's been a bad time to be an astronaut. Today, things took a turn: Space just got a lot more exciting.
SpaceX, the company founded and run by one of The Atlantic's Brave Thinkers, Elon Musk, unveiled the Falcon Heavy this afternoon. With nearly double the carrying capacity of the Space Shuttle, Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket in the world and Musk promised during a press conference in Washington, D.C., that it would take us back to the moon.
"Falcon Heavy ... represents SpaceX's entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category," according to the company's website. "With the ability to carry satellite or interplanetary spacecraft weighing over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Falcon Heavy can lift nearly twice the payload of the next closest vehicle, the U.S. Space Shuttle, and more than twice the payload of the Delta IV Heavy."
Made up of three banks of nine engines, the Falcon Heavy can generate 3,800,000 lb of thrust at liftoff. That's equal to 15 747 jets at full power. The ability to cross-feed propellant from one bank of engines to another makes the rocket, according to SpaceX, extremely reliable. It can still function safely if several of its engines fail. This and other safety features mean that the Falcon Heavy complies with NASA's stringent human rating standards. So maybe it really could take us back to the moon.
Moon or no, Falcon Heavy could, if allowed to compete for government contracts, save the U.S. more than $1 billion every year. The 2012 budget for the United States Air Force includes more than $1.7 billion for four launches, which works out to more than $430 million for every launch. SpaceX is currently projecting that each launch of Falcon Heavy would cost somewhere between $80 million and $120 million. Additionally, medium-lift launches could be pulled off for about $50 million each. Savings of that size add up quickly.