You can consider this the beginning of NASA’s Falcon Heavy era. This week’s launch of the Psyche asteroid mission is the first of five launches the space agency has earmarked directly for SpaceX’s heavy rocket over the next few years.
Falcon Heavy’s flights will include NASA’s Robotic Space Mission Group, sending probes deep into the solar system, deploying a first-class astronomical observatory, sending up a weather satellite, and launching the groundwork for NASA’s Gateway mini-space station around the moon. .
The launch of the Psyche asteroid explorer, scheduled for Thursday, will lift off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We’ve been preparing for this for several years, and we benefited from SpaceX’s statement,” said Tim Dunn, NASA’s launch director based at the Florida Spaceport. “They’ve launched four Falcon Heavies rockets since last November.”
Finally, we know of up to 10 Falcon Heavy missions under contract to SpaceX. Five of those contracts are firm contracts with NASA’s Launch Services Program, an office that procures launch services for the agency’s robotic space missions, matching payloads to commercial rockets. Highlighting this list is Europa Clipper, a $5 billion mission led by JPL to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, an ocean world that may harbor environments suitable for life.
One of the Falcon Heavy rockets scheduled to launch soon is for the US Space Force, and Astrobotic has booked two Falcon Heavy flights for commercial lunar landers that will carry NASA experiments to the lunar surface. There are two additional Falcon Heavy holds that SpaceX could use to launch resupply ships to the Gateway lunar station, possibly in the late 2020s, though the status of those missions is unclear.
So, it’s fair to say that NASA is involved — directly or indirectly — in driving demand for nine of the ten Falcon Heavy missions currently in SpaceX’s backlog.
“It’s an amazing capability for our nation. We’re fortunate to have it,” Dunn told Ars in a recent interview. “If you look at the statement, this is the first of a series of Falcon Heavies.”
NASA’s courageous commitment
Although the Falcon Heavy has been overtaken by the debut of NASA’s Space Launch System and SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket, it remains the world’s most powerful operational commercial rocket, capable of transporting nearly 64 metric tons (more than 140,000 pounds ) of goods to low locations. Earth’s orbit would fall a few hundred miles higher if SpaceX exhausted all three of the rocket’s first-stage boosters.
Setting aside propellant to retrieve the rocket’s side boosters erodes Falcon Heavy’s payload capacity, but SpaceX’s heavy lifter still outperforms any other rocket currently available to NASA. New rockets, such as United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn, will approach the lift capacity of the Falcon Heavy, but both launchers are unproven. ULA says it still has a chance to launch Vulcan’s first test flight in December, and Blue Origin officials have said New Glenn could debut next year. These timelines can be generously described as optimistic.
Meanwhile, the Falcon Heavy is seven for seven since its inaugural launch in February 2018. It has launched commercial communications satellites and military payloads. The launch of NASA’s Psyche mission will mark the eighth flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket. If timelines hold, SpaceX could launch the ninth Falcon Heavy mission at the end of November with a classified Space Force payload.
As of Monday, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which uses a single booster in the first stage, had flown 68 times this year. Now SpaceX is on pace to launch a larger Falcon Heavy rocket, which combines three modified Falcon 9 boosters into a single rocket.
“I’ve come to really appreciate a lot of what they’ve brought to the industry, and continuing to push them forward in a number of different ways,” Dan said of SpaceX. “I hope they say something along the lines of that they appreciate the engagement and the analytical and engineering rigor that NASA brings to the equation. I know, on the analytical side, the software reviews, some of the hardware issues we’ve had. We’ve worked with them over the years, and there have been many times when we’ve come to a mutually agreeable solution.” “Both parties brought value to it.”
Earlier this year, NASA engineers officially certified the Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the agency’s most expensive robotic mission, according to Dunn. This level of certification is known as Category 3 in NASA parlance, and requires at least three successful flights of a combined launch vehicle configuration as well as deep insight by NASA engineers into the rocket design and launch contractor’s quality control processes. If the launch company avoids such broad government involvement, it will need to launch its launch pad on 14 successive successful missions.
You can read more about NASA’s launch vehicle certification requirements in this procurement document.
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