Falcon Heavy launch successful but payload goes off course

Falcon Heavy launch successful but payload goes off course

The genius of the SpaceX rocket program in Elon Musk’s own words: "It'll be like trying to sell an aircraft where one aircraft company has a reusable aircraft and all the other companies had aircraft that were single-use where you would parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash-land randomly somewhere. Crazy as that sounds - that's how the rocket business works."

In February Falcon Heavy successfully lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world - by a factor of two. It has the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs) -- a mass greater than a fully loaded 737 jetliner.

While the initial launch sequence was nearly flawless, there were some significant problems that may lead customers to question the reliability - and reusability - of the Falcon vehicle. First, some of the central first-stage booster’s rockets failed to ignite during its powered descent, causing the booster to miss its floating landing pad in the ocean and hit the water at about 480 kilometres per hour, destroying the vehicle.

Of much greater concern was the path of the upper stage and the Tesla car. According to a statement from SpaceX, the rocket in the upper stage of the Falcon 9 proved more powerful than expected, as a third burn of the engine sent the test payload far off-course. The elliptical orbit of the spacecraft will now carry it many millions of kilometres beyond Mars’ orbit and into the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter at its apogee before it loops back around the sun.

The launch was a demonstration project but had it been a commercial mission, carrying satellites or supplies to a space station, the huge miscalculation of the final orbit insertion would have been catastrophic, in a logistical sense. Clearly, some adjustments need to be made before Falcon Heavy can join the ranks of dependable space cargo workhorses, such as the Atlas, Titan, Delta, Soyuz and Space Shuttle vehicles.

Nevertheless, other rockets developed by SpaceX have been flying numerous cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, for a total of at least 20 flights under the Commercial Resupply Services contract. In 2016, NASA awarded SpaceX a second version of that contract that will cover a minimum of 6 additional flights from 2019 onward. Dragon was designed from the outset to carry astronauts to space, and as early as 2018, SpaceX will carry crew as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. As one of the world’s fastest growing provider of launch services, SpaceX has secured over 100 missions to its manifest, representing over $12 billion in contracts. These include commercial satellite launches as well as NASA and other US Government missions.

Last year, Musk said SpaceX no longer had plans to send humans to space via the Falcon Heavy configuration and intended it only to be a cargo vehicle for payloads of between 26,700 and 63,800 kilograms.

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