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

No one makes news like Elon Musk makes news. That#8217s what happens when you#8217re 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 superheromdashIron Manmdashbased partly on you. So when Elon Musk says he#8217s 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, he#8217s going to get a little attention.

That#8217s exactly the big event Musk is touting Tuesday. The rocket he#8217s preparing to launch is SpaceX#8217s Falcon Heavy, long delayed but finally ready for liftoff. It#8217s currently sitting on Cape Canaveral#8217s 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 driver#8217s seat. If all goes well, the Roadster will eventually be placed into orbit around the sun, because, well, why not?

#8220Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks,#8221 Musk wrote on Instagram. ldquoThat seemed extremely boring. . . . We decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.#8221

That#8217s 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, it#8217s by no means the biggest that ever was. NASA#8217s 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 agency#8217s 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 won#8217t fly until 2019mdashif thenmdashand 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.

So Musk has size on his side. Does he also have price? He claims he does. The Atlas V costs about $109 million per launch, depending on cargo and insurance rates; the bigger Delta IV can go for up to $400 million. Musk boasts of prices starting at $90 million for his rocket.

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