Falcon heavy is one of the most powerful rockets ever built, with a payload capacity of up to 141000 pounds, with 27 engines on its first stage, capable of producing over 5 million pounds of force, the Falcon heavy is no doubt a massive rocket. And let's not forget about the best part the synchronous landing of the side boosters.
However, despite spending about seven years developing this rocket, unfortunately SpaceX has only flown the Falcon heavy a measly three times. Although they have a couple of launches planned for next year, it is likely that Falcon heavy will only fly a single digit number of times before retiring.
So, what happened to Falcon heavy?
Well, starting off, the first major reason that Falcon heavy hasn't seen too much flight time is because it didn't exactly adhere to the proposed timeline. This is completely understandable, because developing rockets, especially one as large as Falcon heavy, is an extremely difficult task. At the same time, albeit a lot can happen during extended development periods, which can significantly reduce the originally anticipated need for the given project.
Elon Musk announced the Falcon heavy way back in 2011 with the projected payload capacity of 117,000 pounds. Aside from this, he planned that the first Falcon heavy launch would take place in 2013. If we were to be conservative, we could double the proposed time frame, and a reasonable expectation would be Falcon heavy taking flights by the end of 2015. But unfortunately this too wouldn't materialize. Indeed, SpaceX was making rapid progress that would make such a timeline quite feasible, but they would run into some major obstacles with their Falcon 9 rockets in 2015 and 2016 which would, of course, take priority.
In 2015 a Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated soon after launch, following shortly by another incident in 2016. A Falcon 9 exploded on the launch pad during a routine static fire. This led to the infamous clip of Falcon 9 seemingly exploding before even launching. Aside from this, the incident would unfortunately lead to the loss of the payload, which was a AMOS-6 communication satellite, coming in at a massive price tag of 195 million dollars.
Evidently, these back-to-back issues with the Falcon 9 raised some concern regarding the reliability of the Falcon 9 rocket, and considering that commercial Falcon 9 launches are a significant portion of SpaceX's revenue, ensuring customer confidence in the Falcon 9 was their top priority which inadvertently pushed back the Falcon heavy to 2017. And as you would guess, after some more to be expected delays, we saw the Falcon heavy launch on February 6 2018.
The launch would be spectacular and go down as one of the most iconic rocket launches in history. However, there was one small blemish which is that the core booster would fail to land and would instead crash into the Atlantic ocean but despite this SpaceX would be able to line up two commercial Falcon heavy launches that were planned for later in 2018. Although, those did not actually take place until next year, with the last Falcon heavy launch taking place on June 25th 2019.
There are currently four Falcon heavy launches scheduled to take place in 2021, but we'll have to see how many of those actually come to fruition. Something that's super ironic though, is that SpaceX is yet to launch the first Falcon heavy contract they received in may of 2012. Intelsat gave SpaceX their first Falcon heavy launch contract, but Intelsat would actually go bankrupt earlier this year, so I'm not sure this will ever take place anyway. As you can see, during extended periods of development your customers may lose interest, find an alternative, or go bankrupt. Thus slashing original demand, moving on.
Aside from taking a significant amount of time to develop, the Falcon heavy is quite a bit more expensive than the Falcon 9. Falcon 9 launches cost about 62 million dollars, while Falcon heavy launches run up to 90 million dollars per launch. Now, from a value perspective, the Falcon heavy is the clear choice. As though it costs one and a half times the Falcon 9, it can lift nearly three times a payload. But the issue is the volume of the payload is identical between a Falcon 9 and Falcon heavy, because the fairings are the same.
As a result, the Falcon heavy doesn't actually provide any volume benefits to the customer. The only reason one would choose the Falcon heavy over the Falcon 9 is if they have an extremely dense item that cannot be handled by the Falcon 9 (which is quite rare), or they need to launch their device much further into space, like geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), which is the intended use case. Falcon 9 can only carry 22,800 kilograms to low Earth orbit (LEO), while Falcon heavy can carry the same payload, plus more to Geostationary Transfer orbit.
But really, how many customers need to reach GTO? Commercial launches are actually still quite infrequent. the high frequency of Falcon 9 launches can be explained by SpaceX themselves launching their Starlink satellites into orbit. As a result, when commercial use of the Falcon 9 itself is not too frequent, you can see why Falcon heavy is rarely the choice of commercial customers.
But then why did SpaceX even develop the Falcon heavy knowing that there would likely be lackluster demand? Well the answer is crewed missions deep into space. Falcon heavy was designed to take astronauts to Moon, and even potentially Mars. The point is Falcon 9 didn't really make sense for crewed Mars missions as the payload capacity to Mars is quite small at 8860 pounds. While that may sound like a lot, when you factor in months of supplies, exercise equipment, sleeping areas, toilets, showers, and much more, Falcon 9 isn't really all that feasible for Mars missions.
Aside from this, also keep in mind that a Mars mission will require several supply runs to Mars before embarking on a cooled mission. As discussed before, Falcon heavy wouldn't really make the trip less cramped, but you could carry over 4 times more pillow to Mars at 37,040 pounds, if you're able to fit it into the fairings.
As you can see, Falcon heavy was expected to make more supply runs much easier, and as for crewed missions up until 2017, SpaceX planned to send two astronauts on a one-week trip around the moon in late 2023. However, in early 2018 Elon Musk knocked out the idea of using Falcon heavy for crewed missions around the moon, or potentially to Mars in favor of using the upcoming Starship (BFR) rocket.
That brings us on to the next major downfall of the Falcon heavy, which is rapid development of Starship. Starship far outperforms Falcon heavy, on basically every front, starting with payload capacity. Starship is expected to be able to carry 220,000 pounds into low earth orbit, or one and a half times that of Falcon heavy.
Theoretically, Starship is supposed to be able to refuel in space before heading to Mars. So it should be able to carry the full 220 thousand pounds straight to Mars, or six times that of Falcon heavy. Anyway, the case for Starship becomes even stronger when we look at pillow to volume. The Falcon heavy fairing is 17.1 feet in diameter, and 43 feet in height. Treating the payload like a cylinder, we get a pillow to volume of upwards of 10,000 cubic feet. Meanwhile, Starship provides nearly four times as much payload volume coming in at 38,800 cubic feet.
Lastly, the nail in the coffin for Falcon heavy is when we compare the launch price of each of these vehicles. Elon Musk projects that Starship may cost as little as 2 million dollars per launch. Even if we quintuple that price target to be conservative, Starship would still only cost 10 million dollars which is a ninth of the cost of Falcon heavy. Putting this together, a six times larger payload capacity along with the ninth of the launch price means that Starship is 54 times as efficient as Falcon heavy. Considering this, it is a no-brainer to wait and use Starship for not only low earth orbit Starlink launches, but also massive supply runs to Mars, thus essentially making the Falcon heavy obsolete.
Despite all of these massive advantages, SpaceX hasn't fully signed off on the Falcon heavy just yet. Elon Musk has revealed that he is open to use Falcon heavy for crewed missions if Starship development takes longer than expected. But Starship development has been moving along quite smoothly indeed. Aside from this, SpaceX has been quickly building up their super heavy booster prototype at Boca Chica, Texas and it is possible that they may even reach orbit using Starship by the end of the year. However, 2022 or 2023 may be a more realistic timeframe. Nonetheless, for the rocket industry that's just around the corner, and with that being said it's quite unlikely that Falcon heavy will end up being used for crewed missions.
In the meantime, Falcon heavy may prove useful when it comes to research missions funded by NASA. Earlier this year, NASA announced that they would be using Falcon heavy in admission to a metal-rich asteroid in July of 2022. So, fortunately we will be able to see the beautiful double booster landing for a few more years until Falcon heavy is fully retired. At the end of the day, Falcon heavy took significantly longer than expected to develop it serves, a very niche audience and purpose, and Starship is rapidly coming to take its spot.