Mad About Science: Falcon Heavy

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

If you are a science buff, or even a casual consumer of news, you probably saw blurbs about SpaceX making a successful launch of the Falcon Heavy and shooting a car into space or something.

The famed Tesla that rode Falcon Heavy into space with Earth in the background and “Starman” behind the wheel. Photo courtesy SpaceX.

This is pretty big news for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s the most powerful rocket currently in use. Secondly, it was developed, tested and successfully launched by a private company (meaning you didn’t have to pay for it.) Thirdly, they managed to recover two-thirds of the vehicle after use. That’s a HUGE deal when it comes to rocketry. Finally, humans launched a CAR into SPACE!

Okay, that last bit is a little much, but stay with me.

The reason everyone goes ga-ga every time SpaceX does just about anything requires a unique foresight into economics and the future of travel. SpaceX is converting short-term goals and investment into long-term payoffs. Space travel is ludicrously expensive for two reasons: The rocket and the fuel inside of it.

Fuel, while expensive, is pretty easily mass-produced. Rockets capable of carrying literal tons of cargo into space aren’t. Think of it this way: imagine living in a world where your car would be destroyed every time you went anywhere. Suddenly, someone shows up with a new-fangled car that you can use over and over again without it completely deconstructing whenever you need a late-night taco fix. Then all you have to worry about is the cost of gas.

Now scale that up to about $150 million per use, and that’s rockets in a propulsive nutshell.

The means in which SpaceX and other private space enterprise developers achieves reusable rockets is pretty remarkable. Any idea where you can reuse something you just threw 40-plus miles into the air with explosions is pretty amazing, but the science behind it is mind-boggling.

The basis is: Use enough fuel to get your payload where it needs to go, while keeping enough in reserve to land. Unlike planes, rockets have to land vertically, and they do this by creating enough thrust so that the moment they touch the ground, the difference between their thrust and the pull of gravity is virtually equal; essentially levitation. If you want the best picture of how this goes completely right and completely wrong at the same time, watch the Falcon Heavy launch.

The boosters landed perfectly. To space nerds, watching those boosters land was like watching Da Vinci paint. The center core, on the other hand failed hard, crashing into the ocean at 300 miles per hour. That happened when two of the three core engines failed, so the rocket couldn’t achieve thrust equal to the pull of gravity. It also missed its landing mark by about 300 feet.

Falcon Heavy is a beast. It can transport over 140,000 pounds of cargo into low-Earth orbit, which would be something like a satellite or a delivery to the International Space Station (ISS). Saturn V was able to carry over 310,000 pounds into LEO, but also wasn’t reusable and came from taxpayer money.

So what kind of bang for my buck do I get at 140,000 pounds? What can we sling into orbit?

You could send the astronauts of the ISS two-thirds of a blue whale, six ship anchors, nine African elephants or eleven T. Rexes. You could always send them something more practical, like 96,552 burritos. Who doesn’t love a good burrito?

Elon Musk went for something a little more unconventional. He launched his own personal Tesla Roadster into space. We aren’t talking to the International Space Station — that bad boy got flung into a heliocentric (around the sun) orbit that intersects the orbits of both Mars and Earth.

If you’re going to send something to space you don’t care about coming back, launch something completely ridiculous to make the biggest statement you can. The Roadster weighs a little under 3,000 pounds and in theory could be delivered as far as Pluto.

I’ve always thought that one of the coolest things about the launch, and virtually every rocket launch since the space shuttles was the reason behind why they spray hundreds of thousands of gallons of water under the rocket during ignition. You’d think it’s because they don’t want the concrete launchpad scorched by the intense heat spraying out of the end of the rocket. That would be an exercise in futility. The real purpose of the water jets is to help muffle the sound of the rockets firing. The sound waves are so intense that they are capable of literally vibrating the rocket apart when they bounce off the concrete. Spraying water helps absorb as much as half the acoustic energy being released by the ignition process.

I mean how cool is that? The rocket is so loud it can destroy itself with its own loudness. Needless to say, launching your own heavy lift vehicle into a low-Earth orbit is highly frowned upon at the library.

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