The privately owned commercial rocket company SpaceX has just revealed the design for their next generation rocket: the Falcon Heavy. It will be able to lift a whopping 53 tons to low-Earth (200 km, 120 mile) orbit — for comparison, Hubble Space Telescope has a mass of 11 tons — or lighter payloads to higher orbit or escape velocity.
I am an unabashed fan of SpaceX, mostly because they’ve proven their worth. The Falcon 1 and 9 rockets have had successful launches, and the company itself has shown to be flexible and respond rapidly to problems during the launch sequence (after losing a Falcon 1, they successfully launched another one only two months later). They’re still young and only have a few launches under their belt, but I think they have a pretty good future ahead of them.
This heavy-lift vehicle is still in the planning stages (you can watch a fun animation of a launch on the SpaceX site), but is based on technology SpaceX has already shown to work (with the caveat that the engines are based on an upgrade to the flight-tested Merlin engines). If it goes as planned, it will be the highest-thrust rocket on Earth with twice the thrust of the Delta IV at only a third of the cost per payload: $1000/pound to orbit, which is very roughly 1/10th the cost of using the Space Shuttle. We’ll see if these numbers hold up, but the rocket looks very promising.
I’m a big fan of our government using private companies to launch payloads to orbit and beyond. We spend a lot of money on that right now, and SpaceX has a real shot at saving the government quite a bit of that money. It’s too early to tell here, but I’m very hopeful that the future of the space program here in America is actually pretty bright in the middle-near term.