Elon Musk suggested Friday that when SpaceX does its first demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy large payload rocket later this year, it might also include an attempt to return the upper stage back to Earth. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure the upper stage on the Falcon Heavy is reusable, which is part of SpaceX’s plan to make Mars a viable target for repeat, return commercial spaceflight.
The Falcon Heavy test, which has been scheduled for some time now, is set for “late summer,” according to Musk. This is in keeping with the new 2017 timing, adjusted from late last year following delays resulting from SpaceX’s pre-flight launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket last September.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is a heavy-lift rocket that would open up a whole new group of potential customers for the private launch provider. Falcon Heavy consists of three Falcon 9 cores at its center, which are made up of 27 Merlin engines, with a projected output of 5 million pounds of thrust. NASA is also preparing its own heavy launcher, the Space Launch System or SLS, with a target launch date of 2018.
Falcon Heavy will have a max cargo capacity of 119,000 pounds in terms of what it can carry to orbit, which is double the payload capacity of the current leader in operational launch craft, the Delta IV Heavy from ULA. It’ll have less capacity for actual mission launches, however, and capacity also goes down if the intent is to reuse the rocket, rather than expend it entirely in a single mission. SpaceX’s goal is to undercut both the SLS projected cost and the Delta IV Heavy actual launch bill by pricing launches at one-third the amount ULA charges.
SpaceX has successfully recovered its Falcon 9 rockets, which make up the first stage of the Falcon Heavy, on a number of occasions now, and on Thursday re-launched one of those recovered rockets for the first time ever. Now, it sounds like Musk is preparing to begin the process of successfully bringing a second stage back to earth, which in the Falcon Heavy includes a single Merlin 1D engine designed for use in a vacuum.
Recovery and reuse of both of these stages are essential to SpaceX’s Mars plan, as it eventually hopes to shuttle many tons of cargo from Earth to orbit, where they’ll be loaded on a craft destined for Mars supply missions.