SpaceX took another major step toward the first launch of the Falcon Heavy. This will be the world’s most powerful rocket, with more than twice the payload-to-orbit capacity of the space shuttle, but at only one third the cost of the Boeing/Lockheed Delta IV Heavy. The Falcon Heavy will be the first ever rocket to break the $1,000-per-pound-to-orbit barrier, less than a tenth as much as the Shuttle.
SpaceX CEO and chief rocket designer Elon Musk was joined by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 30th Space Wing Commander Colonel Richard W. Boltz and Lompoc Mayor John Linn to break ground on a new launch site for the Falcon Heavy—Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Falcon Heavy, along with SpaceX’s medium-lift Falcon 9, offers the next generation of launch capability to the US Air Force, NASA, and commercial satellite companies at revolutionary costs. With a launch site at Vandenberg and the world’s largest rocket, SpaceX will be ready to compete for the full range of US government business, provided competition is allowed. Currently, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed, has a sole-source monopoly contract for Defense Department business.
“These are difficult fiscal times for our federal government and the Falcon vehicles can save the Department of Defense almost $2 billion per year in launch costs, while increasing reliability and capability,” said Musk. “This presents a great opportunity for the DoD to avoid cancelling other programs and minimize reductions in personnel as budgets contract.”
Falcon Heavy is to arrive at Vandenberg by the end of 2012, and its inaugural flight will follow soon after. It will be the most powerful rocket in the world since the Saturn V, which launched the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. The SpaceX launch vehicle boasts 3.8 million pounds of thrust from its 27 engines—equivalent to fifteen 747s at full power.
The first flight from SLC-4E (previously known as PALC2-4—Point Arguello Launch Complex) was Aug. 14, 1964, when a National Reconnaissance Office KH-7 satellite launched atop an Atlas-Agena D. The last vehicle to launch from this site was a Titan IV carrying a NRO B-26 payload on Oct. 19, 2005.
Vandenberg AFB has been the proving ground for US defense vehicles for more than half a century, from the critical Intercontinental Ballistic Missile testing that helped win the Cold War to mighty launch vehicles like the aforementioned Titan. The Falcon family of launch vehicles will continue this rich tradition, with its wide range of capabilities for the NRO and other Department of Defense agencies, NASA and other civil customers, as well as commercial customers.