Based on information released by NASASpaceflight.com, a highly reliable source of insider details, SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket could roll out to the LC-39A launch pad before the end of November, less than a month away. While the first roll-out (or two) will be dedicated solely to “Wet Dress Rehearsals” (WDR), this will be the first time the iconic vehicle makes it to the pad, and will be a historic event regardless of what follows.
No earlier than (NET) “late-November”, the first WDR will see Falcon Heavy go through the usual motions of propellant loading while also conducting an array of systems checks and validations to verify that things are proceeding as expected. This first test will not culminate in any sort of hot-fire, and is more intended to verify that the massive rocket is playing well with the modifications made to the launch pad and the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) that carries it from the integration facilities to the pad. If major issues come up, they will be dealt with and followed by a second identical WDR. If there are no issues with the first WDR, the second rehearsal could smoothly morph into the first static fire of the integrated vehicle.
As Chris Gebhardt of NSF discusses in some detail, the first Falcon Heavy static fire(s) conducted at LC-39A will be of groundbreaking importance, as SpaceX is currently unable to test fully-integrated Falcon Heavy vehicles at its McGregor, Texas facilities due to the rocket’s sheer power. A lot, thus, rests on these first static fires, currently scheduled to begin around December 15th.
Given the distinctly experimental nature of Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch, specific dates are best taken as general placemarkers, and the actual dates of the first flow depend entirely upon the tests that precede each subsequent step. Nevertheless, the dates provided by NASASpaceflight point to Falcon Heavy’s first static fire on December 15th, followed two weeks later by a tentative launch date of December 29th.
Even an uncertain launch date of that specificity is still a historic event for Falcon Heavy, long lampooned and straw-manned as an example of SpaceX’s silly pie-in-the-sky claims and Elon Musk’s oversimplification of complex engineering tasks. There is a grain of truth to such contentions, but they tend to miss the point by huge margins. The actual market for mid-level heavy-lift launch vehicles like Falcon Heavy is quite simply too small to be a major motivator for a commercial launch company like SpaceX. One must remember that SpaceX was not founded to be a run-of-the-mill launch provider. The company’s goal, as has been reiterated ad infinitum, is “enabling human life on Mars”, something that has explicitly prefaced every single job posting on the company’s website for more than half a decade.
For a time, it appeared that Falcon Heavy might eventually be used to enable SpaceX’s Red Dragon program, intended to field-test the technologies needed for month-long cruises in deep space and landing large payloads on Mars. However, the program was cancelled earlier this year, in favor of what Musk called “vastly bigger ships”. Indeed, updated Mars plans unveiled on September 29th showed that SpaceX was forging ahead with an updated BFR and BFS, and hopes to fly its first missions to Mars in 2022.