SpaceX, a space exploration company founded and headed by Elon Musk, has designed a rocket capable of carrying large payloads and reloading rockets used for take-off, a feat previously unattainable by any space program up to this point. Reusable rockets will dramatically reduce necessary funding for making space-worthy craft.
Propulsion rockets up to this point have been one-and-done. Space shuttles have always used solid-fuel rockets to achieve exit velocity: the speed necessary to escape earth’s gravitational pull. These single-use rockets cost a great deal to manufacture. Every empty rocket shunted by a space shuttle cost thousands of dollars. The development of reusable rockets means that those fees need to be paid only once per rocket.
The Falcon Heavy is “the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two,” according to SpaceX’s website. Considering SpaceX’s proclaimed goal to “revolutionize space technology with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets,” the Falcon Heavy is yet another step forward.
Kevin MacFarlan, professor of engineering at John Brown University, explained some of the science that makes the Falcon Heavy so impressive, “I was really impressed with the way those rockets launched and came back to earth, both at the Kennedy Space Center.” Previous rockets had to be shunted once they were spent, often ended up somewhere in the ocean, and were afterwards unusable.
MacFarlan was also impressed by the rockets’ abilities to carry more weight. “They have to fire the rockets to slow their descent, which means they have to extra fuel to do that, and any time you have to carry extra fuel, to have to allow for that in terms of more fuel and oxidizer that you have to carry along with you.”
“If you had a disposable rocket, you wouldn’t hve to allow for that extra weight. You could just carry what you needed and dispose of the rocket once you were done with it,” MacFarlan said.
MacFarlan refers to a common problem in rocket science: the more weight a rocket has, the more speed it needs to achieve exit velocity. The more speed that’s needed, the more fuel required, and the more fuel added, the greater the weight. The fact that the Falcon Heavy was able to account for the fuel required for exit velocity, as well as landing, is perhaps the most impressive detail of the launch.
Josef Asbeck, senior engineering major, largely agreed with MacFarlan, and stressed the importance the Falcon Heavy will have for the future of space travel. Asbeck, who has interned with NASA, believed the rocket would dramatically reduce the cost of space travel, encouraging other space programs to invest in future projects of their own. Asbeck was particularly interested in the reusable natures of the rockets themselves and what they mean for SpaceX’s goals.