SpaceX, the American space transport company founded by PayPal and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, has announced a late 2013 or 2014 launch date for the world's most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy. Overshadowed by only the Saturn V moon rocket that was decommissioned after the Apollo program, the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry payloads of 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds or 53,070 kg) into orbit, which is more than the maximum take-off weight of a Boeing 737-200 loaded with 136 passengers, luggage and fuel.
The first of the Falcon Heavy's two stages is made up of three nine-engine cores that are used as the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. For the Falcon Heavy, the Merlin engines have been upgraded and are currently being tested at SpaceX's development facility in McGregor, Texas. Like a commercial airliner, each engine is surrounded by a protective shell to contain a fire or chamber rupture and prevent it from affecting other engines or the vehicle itself.
At liftoff the 69.2m (227 ft) long Falcon Heavy will generate 3.8 million pounds of thrust, which is equivalent to the thrust of fifteen Boeing 747's taking off at the same time. SpaceX says this gives it more than twice the performance of the next most powerful vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance. SpaceX also says that with more than twice the payload of the Delta IV but at one third the cost, the Falcon Heavy sets a new world record in terms of economy at approximately US$1,000 per pound to orbit.
"Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions," said Musk.
To achieve performance comparable to a three-stage rocket the Falcon Heavy will be the first rocket in history to do a propellant cross-feed from the side boosters to the center core, which leaves the center core with most of its propellant after the side boosters separate. Crossfeed can also be turned off when it is not required, such as for missions below 100,000 pounds (45,359 kg).
With the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft to orbit, SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy on the commercial market for US$80–$125 million, which compares to the $435 million per launch the U.S. Air Force has budgeted for four launches in 2012. The first launch for the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX's Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014.