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April 06, 2011

SpaceX aims Falcon Heavy at EELV and U.S. Government Business

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Washington DC – SpaceX (News - Alert) officially announced its Falcon Heavy rocket specifications and plans today at the National Press Club, with a first launch targeted for 2012. It's a product specifically aimed at the U.S. government to deliver more payload to orbit at a cost at about a third of existing rockets.

“Falcon Heavy will care more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket,” said SpaceX CEO and chief rocket designer Elon Musk. “This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.”

Falcon Heavy can carry up to 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds) to orbit, more than twice the performance of the retiring Space Shuttle or Delta IV Heavy operated by the United Launch Alliance – and it is the Delta IV business SpaceX wants.

During the press conference, Musk emphasized that Falcon Heavy costs less than a third of a Delta IV Heavy launch.   SpaceX is offering a Falcon Heavy launch for $80 to $125 million per flight. In comparison, the U.S. Air Force has four Delta IV launches scheduled for 2012 at a cost of $1.74 billion – an average of $435 million per launch.

The first Falcon Heavy will be delivered to Vandenberg, California by the end of next year with liftoff to follow “soon thereafter,” said a statement from the company. A first launch from Cape Canaveral is planned for late 2013 or 2014. Payload for the demonstration flight will likely consist of "secondary" nanosatellites – and at 53 metric tons, that's a lot of little satellites at 10 kilograms a pop – unless a customer jumped in at the last minute to be the main payload on the demo flight out of Vandenberg.

Falcon Heavy’s first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores, generating 3.8 million pounds of thrust – about 15 Boeing (News - Alert) 747s taking off at the same time. The Falcon Heavy has been designed for what the company terms “extreme reliability,” including multiple engine-out capability and blast shielding around engines.

In addition, Falcon Heavy is designed to meet NASA human rating standards, including higher structure safety margins of 40 percent above flight loads and triple redundant avionics. It also is the first rocket to do propellant cross-feeds from its side boosters to the central core, leaving the central core with most of its propellant after the two sides separate.

While SpaceX doesn't have any customer commitments for Falcon Heavy, Musk said there was "strong interest" and the company was in "advanced stages of discussion" with both U.S. government and commercial operators.

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee

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