Most powerful rocket takes off on first paid mission

Pablo Tucker
April 14, 2019

The most powerful operational rocket in the world, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, launched its first commercial mission on Thursday from Florida in a key demonstration for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's space company in the race to grasp lucrative military launch contracts. The satellite was deployed approximately 34 minutes after liftoff.

Following booster separation, Falcon Heavy's two side boosters landed at SpaceX's Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1 and LZ-2) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The center core of SpaceX's second Falcon Heavy rocket sits atop the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.

The launch was also Falcon Heavy's first commercial endeavor. SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, cleared its first unmanned test flight in March ahead of its crewed mission planned for July, while the first unmanned test for Boeing's Starliner capsule is slated for August on ULA's Atlas 5 rocket. 'Will be flown on Starlink mission later this year'.

Musk has sought to recover and reuse the fairings for additional launches because they're expensive to build.

The ability to retrieve payload fairings is the latest step in SpaceX's creation of rocket systems that are entirely reusable.

Unfortunately, the fairing halves have proven hard to recover. On top of that, Musk tweeted at 6:31 p.m. PDT (09:31 p.m. EDT) that the two payload fairings (aka. the nose cone) had been successfully retrieved at sea. Seawater isn't the best for rocket components, but the company is confident it can refurbish the fairings after they've been dunked in the ocean.

SpaceX constructed a boat with a massive net attached, affectionately called Mr. Steven (pictured), to try to recover the fairings. This same principle has informed the mission architecture behind the BFR system, which consists of the reusable Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy launch vehicle.

And even before that point, SpaceX was already celebrating the successful landing of Falcon Heavy's three individual boosters. These boosters have been part of the Falcon 9 rocket for nearly a year and offer better thrust, improved landing legs and other features that make retrieval easier. This is in response to VP Mike Pence's call for NASA to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon by 2024, "by any means necessary".

The total cost of one of its Falcon 9 launches is estimated to reach £44 million ($61m), while each of its larger Falcon Heavy flights costs £65 million ($90m).

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