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Why the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket Is Such a Big Deal for Elon Musk

Why the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket Is Such a Big Deal for Elon Musk
From TIME - February 6, 2018

No one makes news like Elon Musk makes news. Thats what happens when youre the founder of a rocket company, a co-founder of an electric car and solar panel company, a co-founder of PayPal and, not for nothing, have an actual movie superheroIron Manbased partly on you. So when Elon Musk says hes going to launch the most powerful rocket in the world from the very same launch pad that sent the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon, hes going to get a little attention.

Thats exactly the big event Musk is touting Tuesday. The rocket hes preparing to launch is SpaceXs Falcon Heavy, long delayed but finally ready for liftoff. Its currently sitting on Cape Canaverals historic Pad 39A, with its first launch window opening at 1:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Feb. 6, and closing at 4 p.m. When launched, Falcon Heavy will carry a cherry red Tesla Roadster with a dummy wearing a SpaceX spacesuit in the drivers seat. If all goes well, the Roadster will eventually be placed into orbit around the sun, because, well, why not?

Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks, Musk wrote on Instagram. That seemed extremely boring. . . . We decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.

Thats the showman part of Musk. But what about the rocket man? Does the Falcon Heavy launch matter as much as all the hype suggests? Maybe.

Musk is telling the stone truth when he says his Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world. It will pack up to 5.5 million lbs. (2.5 million kg) of thrust in its first stage, and will be able to lift 141,000 lbs. (64,000 kg) of payload to low-Earth orbit (LEO). That makes it more than twice as powerful as its two main competitors, the Delta IV and the Atlas V. It can lift more than twice as much as those rockets too.

But while the Falcon Heavy is the biggest rocket at large today, its by no means the biggest that ever was. NASAs venerable Saturn V moon rocket had a staggering 7.5 million lbs. (3.4 million kg) of thrust at launch and the power to put 261,000 lbs. (118,000 kg) to LEO. NASA has plans to beat even that. The prosaically named Space Launch System (SLS), the agencys next generation heavy lift rocket, is designed to pack 9 million lbs (4 million kg) of punch and lift 290,000 lbs. (132,000 kg).

The catch is that the Saturn V was mothballed in 1973, while the first SLS wont fly until 2019if thenand it will initially be a smaller version than the final heavy-lift model. That does leave the Falcon Heavy as the likely soon-to-be reigning champ.

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