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story.lead_photo.caption A mannequin dubbed “Starman” sits at the wheel of a Tesla Roadster that will be on board when Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launches its new SpaceX rocket, the Falcon Heavy, from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., possibly today.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- SpaceX's hot new monster rocket makes its launch debut this week, blasting off from the same pad that hoisted men to the moon a half-century ago.

The Falcon Heavy won't surpass NASA's Saturn V moon rocket, still all-time king of the launch circuit. It won't even approach the liftoff might of NASA's space shuttles.

But when it departs on its first test flight -- as early as today -- the Heavy with its three boosters and 27 engines will be the most powerful working rocket out there today, by a factor of two. Picture SpaceX's frequent-flier Falcon 9 and its single booster and then times that by three; the Heavy's three first-stage boosters are strapped side by side by side.

The Heavy represents serious business for the private space company founded 16 years ago by Elon Musk. With more than 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust -- equivalent to 18 747 jetliners -- the Heavy will be capable of lifting super-size satellites into orbit and sending spacecraft to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Using another airplane analogy, SpaceX boasts a Heavy could lift a 737 into orbit, passengers, luggage and all.

Musk has been warning for months that this first Heavy might not make it higher than the launch tower. He upped the ante by putting his red Tesla Roadster atop the rocket. In addition to SpaceX, he runs Tesla, a maker of electric cars.

A mannequin Musk calls "Starman" is in the payload car's driver's seat, right hand on the wheel and left arm resting on the convertible's door. It's wearing a white-and-black-trimmed spacesuit and helmet, the same outfit real astronauts are to wear when riding SpaceX rockets bound for the International Space Station.

The rocket's launch window today is 12:30 p.m.-3 p.m.

The company already has some Heavy customers lined up, including the U.S. Air Force.

"I can't wait to see it fly and to see it fly again and again," said the Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern. He's the lead scientist for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft which made an unprecedented flyby of Pluto and is now headed to an even smaller, icy world on the fringes of the solar system.

Cape Canaveral hasn't seen this kind of rocket mania since the last space shuttle flight in 2011. Huge crowds are expected for the afternoon launch from Kennedy Space Center. Visitor center tickets for the best up-close viewing, called "Feel the Heat" and "Closest Package," sold out quickly.

"When you're talking about what would be the biggest and largest operational launch vehicle in the world, that adds another dimension of excitement," said Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who used to work for SpaceX and the Obama administration.

The Heavy is capable of delivering, in one fell swoop, 140,660 pounds of cargo to low-Earth orbit, nearly 60,000 pounds to high-Earth orbit, 37,000 pounds to Mars, or 7,700 pounds to Pluto.

Fresh-off-the-drawing-board rockets typically carry steel or concrete blocks in place of true cargo.

"That seemed extremely boring," Musk said.

NASA officials said the Falcon Heavy is just the latest evidence of the Kennedy Space Center's transformation into a multiuser spaceport, a turnaround after decades of space shuttles taking center stage.

A variety of rockets will be needed -- besides NASA's still-under-construction Space Launch System megarocket -- as astronauts venture out into the solar system, said Kennedy's director of center planning and development, Tom Engler. Blue Origin, led by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, for instance, is developing a big, reusable orbital-class rocket named New Glenn after the first American to orbit the world, John Glenn.

Musk's persistence resulted in SpaceX becoming, in 2010, the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and then safely guide it back to Earth, something only large governments had accomplished. Two years later, SpaceX became the first commercial supplier of the International Space Station. Now the company is aiming for the first commercial crew launch.

At the heart of SpaceX's cost savings is its rocket-recycling campaign. Two of the Heavy's first-stage boosters are repeats, having flown on Falcon 9s. The company will attempt to recover all three boosters; the two old boosters will aim for side-by-side vertical touchdowns at Cape Canaveral, while the new, beefed-up center core will attempt to land on a floating ocean platform.

Unlike most rockets out there, the Falcon Heavy receives no government funding. The Mars-obsessed Musk has taken it upon himself and his California-based aerospace company to bankroll the hulking rocket. At a sticker price of $90 million, the Heavy is a relative bargain. NASA's bigger and more powerful Space Launch System rocket is expected to exceed $1 billion a flight.

If the flight succeeds, the Tesla Roadster will be the first automobile hurled into space. It's destined for a perpetual orbit around the sun that will swing out as far as Mars.

A David Bowie fan, Musk has promised via Twitter to have the car soundtrack playing "Space Oddity." "Starman" is the title of a Bowie song from 1972. That's three years after the late rocker penned the lyric "Ground control to Major Tom" for "Space Oddity."

"It is a catchy way to get attention," said Stern while driving his blue Tesla Model S in Boulder, Colo., last week.

If the flight succeeds, Musk's Starman should cruise around the sun for a billion years.

Photo by SpaceX via AP
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is sits on a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in December. The rocket is scheduled for launch today.

Business on 02/06/2018

Print Headline: SpaceX set to debut large rocket

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