At 1:45 p.m. Arizona time on Tuesday, SpaceX successfully test launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, seven years after first announcing the project.
Falcon Heavy has three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores, combining 27 Merlin engines to deliver nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 pounds) into orbit. In a bit of cheeky cross-branding, the payload on the rocket included SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s Tesla car.
The SpaceX launch is a big step for space travel and exploration, in a variety of ways.
ASU Now caught up with Professor Jim Bell of Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration to talk about Falcon Heavy, commercializing space travel and just when exactly we’ll be able to weekend on the moon.
Question: What does a successful launch of Falcon Heavy mean for space exploration?
Answer: It’s the most capable new large rocket that has been built in a long time. It’s not as powerful as the Saturn V was. It’s not as powerful as NASA’s new astronaut rocket, the SLS, is going to be. But it will be the most powerful rocket able to launch from the U.S. since Apollo.
It will be able to send much more payload up into lower earth orbit, or beyond lower Earth orbit — to the moon, to Mars. … And it can be used for all those kind of applications: launch satellites into space, those really big, heavy satellites; or multiple satellites at a time into space; or to send cargo, or eventually people, to places like the moon or Mars.
Q: Falcon Heavy has 27 engines and many headlines are about the size of its payload. Why is the scale so important?
A: The Russians have a bigger rocket they’ve launched occasionally. So it won’t be the largest in the world. And NASA’s working on an even bigger rocket, eventually getting people back to the moon and out to Mars. So that will be much more comparable to what the Saturn V could do. But that’s not being designed to launch satellites or colonies to Mars. From the company’s perspective they will have much more capability than any of their competitors right now. They’re competing with companies like ULA and European, Japanese and Indian launch vehicles: these can all put satellites into Earth orbit. So they’re competing in that market and now all of a sudden, if this thing works, it will be much more capability for a pretty reasonable price compared to a lot of the competition.
Q: Is the commercialization of space travel a good thing?
A: That’s not what SpaceX is looking to do. SpaceX was created with the sole vision of making humanity a multi-planet species. Building rockets and selling launch services is all something that they have to do to make money and to learn the technologies and to build new kinds of technologies to make humanity a multi-planet species. That’s what they’re in it for.
Q: So associating the phrase “space tourism” with SpaceX is incorrect?
A: Yeah, they’re not in it for tourism. They’re in it for colonization. Other companies are in it for tourism, just not SpaceX. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin — these other companies who are launching suborbital spacecraft, and eventually, orbital spacecraft, they have a clear tourist component to what they’re trying to do.
Q: What will the Tesla car look like after it comes back from a Mars-length orbit?
A: It’s not coming back. It’s just going to be in orbit around the sun. It will fly past Mars if it all works right.
Q: So there’s no intention of recovery, it’s just to prove they can send that much payload up?
A: I would imagine it will be a target for future recovery. Probably they’ll be a contest 50 years from now or something, to go find it, get it and bring it back to the Smithsonian.
Q: How long do you think it will be before you can take a trip to the moon for the weekend just as easily as you could to California?
A: That’s an excellent question and it’s answered in "The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide: A Futuristic Journey Through the Cosmos." (Bell’s new book, which will be released in April.)
There’s a chapter in there about weekending on the moon or going to Mars for the summer. It’s set 200 years in the future. I think it’s a reasonable extrapolation of what’s happening now. It might be not ambitious enough, maybe all this could happen in 100 years …
The idea is that just like 100 years ago, if somebody said, “Hey, you know, in a 100 years, you can go anywhere you want. An average family can go anywhere you want on Earth in two or three flights of an airplane.” Well, first they’d go, “Airplane? What’s that?” Right? They’d say, “You’re crazy; you’re insane. In 100 years? Anywhere on the Earth? What are you talking about? It takes weeks by boats to get across the Atlantic, months.” But I think from here, where we are right now, we could say the same thing. In 100 years, maybe 200 years, the average family, middle-class, will be able to go anywhere in the solar system.
Top photo: Professor Jim Bell in his office on the Tempe campus. Photo by Kylie Digges/ASU Now