It’s a new year, and this new year will see a lot of cool stuff in space — but one of those cool things will be the long-awaited first flight of the Falcon Heavy! It’s basically three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together, with a single upper stage, and it’s what Musk ultimately wants to use to boost his Red Dragon concept to Mars. Red Dragon is experiencing delays of its own (the abandonment of propulsive landings for the ISS crew transfer Dragon is a bit of a blow, since that’s a prerequisite for Mars landings), but the launch vehicle is almost here. And perhaps surprisingly for such an enormous rocket, it actually already has customers lined up. The conventional wisdom is that there’s too little need for a rocket in this class to make it commercially viable, but it appears that the Falcon 9 reusability and parts commonality may just tip the scales enough to make it viable. For this first flight, the core stage is brand new, but the two strap-ons are recycled, having previously boosted Thaicom 8 and the ninth commercial Dragon cargo mission to the ISS.
But what of the payload?
This is the first flight of a completely new rocket, so there is no paying customer. Typically, a new rocket will carry some type of “mass simulator” — a slab of metal, a chunk of concrete, perhaps even a tank of water to do the job of being lifted for not a lot of extra money. But that’s too boring for SpaceX. So Elon Musk has contributed his cherry-red 2008 Tesla Roadster as the payload. And it’s been installed on the rocket, which gives me no end of delight due to the sheer, beautiful ridiculousness of these images, showing the Roadster mounted on a payload adapter, about to be encapsulated in a payload fairing that is ridiculously large for such a tiny payload.
If you have the opportunity to be in Florida for this, I highly recommend it. (I doubt I’ll be able to, alas.) If all goes well, not only will this be the biggest thing lifting from LC-39A since the end of the Shuttle program, but it will also feature the spectacular return of three core stages. Two will return to land at Cape Canaveral, while the central core stage will continue on for a water landing aboard the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” (equipped with its autonomous welding bot, Roomba, which secures the returned stage before the barge heads back to port). The upper stage, meanwhile, is expected to boost the Tesla roadster into a Mars-crossing Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which it may persist for billions of years. It won’t actually reach Mars; it won’t be launching at the right time for that. (Unless it gets delayed sufficiently; the Mars window will be opening in March, just in time for Mars InSight to launch aboard its Atlas V.)
It’s ridiculous, but oh so cool all the same. 😉 If successful, it will be the first car (well, with seats anyway) to go beyond the Moon.
Meanwhile, since then, the vehicle has been rolled to the pad for a fit check. All went well, and it was returned to the hangar.