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 Altered Trajectory

Jamie Groh M.Ed. 

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First Operational Flight of Falcon Heavy


Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

The second week of April was successful for private launch provider, SpaceX. Early in the week the second ever, first operational, flight and attempted triple landing act of their heavy class rocket, the Falcon Heavy, was scheduled to occur from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The company was also awarded a new contract by NASA to support the first ever attempt to redirect an asteroid through impact.


The launch of Falcon Heavy, although ultimately successful, did not go without a few hiccups. As this was the first operational flight for the heavy class rocket, SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk stated in a tweet that they were being “extra cautious” with launch procedures.

This new launch vehicle was comprised of three of their newly minted Block 5 Falcon boosters. The Block 5 configuration is meant to ensure that the booster is highly reusable and can withstand harsher launching and landing conditions. It’s also designed to provide a 10-15% increase in overall power, according to Musk, in order to loft heavier payloads to further orbits. All of the improvements made to the overall design of the original demonstration flight vehicle, which debuted February of 2018 by launching a Tesla roadster and Starman into orbit, has been done to ensure that Falcon Heavy is the most powerful heavy class rocket in the world.


Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

Tuesday, April 9th was set to be the targeted launch date, but central Florida’s unpredictable weather had other plans. A strong line of thunderstorms expected to linger over the launch site pushed the launch date to the back up date of Wednesday, April 10th. Although disappointment of a slip in launch date was widespread, excitement to witness the first operational flight still remained.


Wednesday brought much nicer weather conditions and launch teams were working no issues with the vehicle. Everything was set for Falcon Heavy to put on a spectacular demonstration of power. As the day progressed however, winds in the upper levels of the atmosphere created conditions that violated acceptable weather parameters. This development forced SpaceX to push launch to the end of the one hour and fifty-nine minute launch window. Before that time came, it was determined that the upper level winds would not die down enough to meet acceptable launch conditions and a scrub and 24 hour recycle was initiated.


Launch teams, members of the media, and thousands of onlookers again converged on the Space Coast of central Florida the evening of Thursday, April 11th. Weather conditions had improved drastically, launch teams were confident with the vehicle, and SpaceX was once again ready to make history. Launch countdown procedures began and proceeded nominally with a completely smooth and unusually quiet countdown NET leading to launch. SpaceX was targeting a launch time of 6:35 pm which was the very beginning of the available hour and fifty-seven minute launch window. Unlike the previous launch attempt, everything was on track for a historic launch.


Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

The Falcon Heavy flew through all timeline checkpoints and initiated launch sequence right on time at 6:35 pm. The 27 Merlin engines were all ignited at once at T-2 seconds and produced 5.1 million pounds of thrust to propel Falcon Heavy to the stars. This process slightly varied from the previous demonstration flight when the two side boosters’ 18 engines were ignited first followed by the center core’s 9 engines. The newly configured vehicle took flight from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center and successfully demonstrated the ability to meet all required in-flight procedures.

Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

During flight the two Block 5 side boosters separated from the center core booster to complete a phenomenal display of orchestrated engineering and fall with style back to LZ-1 and LZ-2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The center core booster continued to propel the second stage and the Arabsat-6A telecommunications satellite to orbit. When main engine cut off (MECO) and second stage separation occurred 3 minutes and 35 seconds into flight, SpaceX hoped to nail another first by returning the core booster for a landing on their autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the mid-Atlantic.

Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

At 7 minutes and 51 seconds following liftoff the side boosters returned for a picture perfect twin landing to LZ-1 and LZ-2. About two minutes after that at 9 minutes and 48 seconds after launch the center core booster achieved a picture perfect landing on the autonomous drone ship while the second stage engine continued to propel the Arabsat-6A satellite to orbit. The payload was then successfully deployed into its intended orbit a mere 34 minutes after launch.


Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

Photo Credit: Jamie Groh

Overall the second ever, first operational, flight of the Falcon Heavy went off without a hitch. The whole process demonstrated, once again, that the private launch provider is able to achieve feats beyond imagination through sheer determination of everyone involved. They, once again, proved that there are still achievements to be made for the first time.



Following this successful second flight, SpaceX is expected to demonstrate the reusability capabilities of their boosters when the two side boosters from this launch are reused for the third flight of Falcon Heavy later this year. The center core booster, although initially demonstrated the ability to successfully land on the drone ship, suffered a mishap due to rough seas. SpaceX announced that the booster did tip over on the drone ship and most likely will not be able to be reused.




According to Musk, however, the 9 Merlin engines seem to still be in working condition, but will require further evaluation. Unlike previous Falcon 9 landings on the drone ship that have utilized a robotic securing device nicknamed “Octagrabber” to secure the booster the center core was not equipped with the required clamp downs. Instead, crew members had to physically board the droneship and weld the booster into place. With the rough sea conditions, this likely proved to be challenging and for the safety of crew members, was aborted.


Illustration Credit: John Hopkins Applied Physics LAbratory

Along with the (mostly) successful launch, landings, and recoveries SpaceX experienced another milestone in the second week of April when NASA awarded a contract to launch the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The announcement came during final launch preparations prior to liftoff of Falcon Heavy. The contract is estimated to bring in $69 million for SpaceX while also ensuring that their launch facility located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California will remain active in coming years. The mission centers around the idea that a spacecraft could intercept and potentially deliver redirectional force to an asteroid to shift it’s trajectory by, essentially, crashing into it. The project will launch atop a Falcon 9 booster currently slated for mid-2021.


For more information regarding the DART mission please visit:

https://www.jhuapl.edu/PressRelease/190412

https://www.nasa.gov/planetarydefense


For more photos of Falcon Heavy please visit our Gallery tab.