SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying 24 experimental satellites in what Elon Musk’s rocket company called one of the most difficult launches it has attempted.
The craft, the world’s most powerful rocket by a factor of two, blasted off at 2:30am (06:30 GMT), and was followed by cheers inside the control room at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida and at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
There’s a lot riding on the launch. And it is not just the cargo. It is the right to competitively bid for the really big US Department of Defense space launch contracts.
SpaceX wants a certification from the US Air Force in order to compete for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in Pentagon space launch contracts. But here’s the rub: SpaceX and the Air Force have been engaged in years of bitter legal battles, over how bids for defence contracts are evaluated and eventually awarded.
“Currently, there is a monopoly on big launch vehicles, as Lockheed Martin and Boeing came together and created a company called ULA (United Launch Alliance), and they basically have a monopoly on launches for the US government for the big rockets,” Adam Baker, a space systems engineer with the Royal Aeronautics Society, told Al Jazeera.
Starting in 2013, SpaceX’s numerous lawsuits have steadily chipped away at the near monopoly the Air Force bestowed on the ULA, a Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense joint venture formed in 2006. Almost always ending in an out-of-court settlement, SpaceX’s legal arguments have been credited with prying open the Pentagon’s bidding process and exposing “gross waste of funds,” and other questionable practices including an $800m annual retainer for ULA.
Liftoff of the Falcon Heavy rocket on the STP-2 mission. pic.twitter.com/niOmbLaXUa
— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) June 25, 2019
“This is an opportunity to break the monopoly on those large launch vehicles, which is good for space exploration in general,” Baker said. “SpaceX has come along, saying this monopoly isn’t good for prices and for innovation, so they want to compete with that.”
Tuesday’s Defense Department Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) launch marks the first time SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has carried an Air Force mission into space. It’s also the first time an Air Force payload has been launched on a used rocket.
This test is the third launch for the Falcon Heavy reusable rocket design, but SpaceX is not just testing its heavy haul capabilities. It will test the spacecraft’s “last-mile” delivery abilities, placing 24 separate spacecraft in not one, but three different orbital altitudes.
SpaceX surprise: Falcon Heavy center booster landing could smash distance record after last-second change 🚀 ✖https://t.co/PGX9LlmXoN
— TESLARATI (@Teslarati) June 19, 2019
What that means is the SpaceX team will refire the second-stage rocket engine four times to manoeuvre the craft and correctly deploy all payloads before returning to earth. The first payload deployed approximately 12 minutes after liftoff, with the last being dropped off roughly three hours and 20 minutes later.
The US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which is managing the Pentagon’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission, is also using this mission to develop mission assurance policies and procedures for the reuse of used launch vehicle boosters.
The craft’s core rocket is brand new, while the two outer boosters are used. Nevertheless, each refiring of the core rocket in the mission’s second stage presents an opportunity for critical disaster, as it is the firing itself that is the most dangerous aspect.
The STP-2 payloads on the Falcon Heavy launch are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, Defense Department research laboratories, and university research projects.