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Howard Altman: Interplanetary rocket is next test for SpaceX

By Howard Altman
Published: February 9, 2018
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy blasts off of launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday for it's first ever flight. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Sorry Martians, but it looks like Elon Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster won’t be headed to an Angry Red Planet dealership after all.

That’s because the third-stage engine burn on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket was more powerful than anticipated, throwing the plans to orbit the Roadster around Mars out of whack.

Though the galaxy’s most famous car is now headed to the asteroid belt, the launch of the Earth’s most powerful operational rocket from the Kennedy Space Center last week was still a resounding success.

The question here in Florida is: What’s next?

At a post-mission press conference, Musk said his company is now focusing its engineering might on the next project, the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. It’s an interplanetary rocket system designed to take payloads to the moon or Mars and could be ready for test flights in the next three or four years.

Musk said the initial testing will most likely be at the SpaceX center in Texas.

"It will most likely be at the Brownsville location," he said, "because it’s got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool."

The BFR could be ready for a test flight in about three or four years, Musk said. But whether that happens in Texas or Florida is still to be determined, Dale Ketcham, chief of strategic alliances for Space Florida, told me Thursday.

And it may be a long time coming.

"Although much attention has turned to the BFR after the success of Heavy, it’s still going to be a while before they start bending any metal for BFR," Ketcham said.

Still, Space Florida, the state’s aerospace organization, will be pushing for a Sunshine State launch. SpaceX, Ketcham and others have told me, has helped spur the rebound of the state’s aerospace industry, hit hard by the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. Additional launches here can only help.

"We’d sure like to talk to them about where it will launch," Ketcham told me Thursday, adding that he is not expecting an immediate answer.

"SpaceX, as is their style, will talk about that when they’re ready."

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

•••

Beyond economic benefits, the Falcon Heavy launch, complete with side boosters that safely landed, showcased technology that could one day help U.S. and allied troops — especially at a time when there are frictions with countries like Russia and China, which possess the capabilities of jamming communications and, potentially, much worse.

SpaceX representative John Young, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told me that such systems can help quickly and relatively cheaply restore destroyed or disabled satellites.

With the prospect an adversary might take out satellites, the ability to quickly replace them can be a game changer for U.S. and allied forces, Young said.

In addition, both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have the capability of allowing U.S. Special Operations Command’s small satellites to hitch a ride. The command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, said it is looking toward the commercial space industry as a launch option.

•••

The Pentagon last week announced no new deaths in ongoing operations. Officials with Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State, say a service member died Jan. 31 in what appears to be a non-combat-related incident.

As of Thursday, the service member’s name and the circumstances surrounding the death had yet to be released and the incident is under investigation.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 49 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the followup, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 44 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman