In the 14 months since the first Falcon Heavy flight, SpaceX’s big rocket has taken on a new importance. Delays in NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) have left NASA with a crew-capable Orion capsule that’s ready to go and a timeline for Moon missions that’s already running late. In a pair of recent press conferences, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested that Falcon Heavy might be used in place of SLS to launch Orion on an un-crewed mission around the Moon next year and might even become the rocket behind returning humans to the lunar surface by 2024.
For any of that to happen, this launch has to go perfectly for SpaceX. Yes, this is the deployment of a communications satellite, but it is also an onstage audition for being the new moon rocket for NASA. That’s a lot of pressure on this mission. Also, this is the first Falcon Heavy to be built using the new “Block 5” version of the Falcon boosters. SpaceX will be trying to recover all three of the booster components, including another side-by-side landing back at Kennedy for the two side boosters. So the flight should be both a nail-biter and provide some heart-stopping moments.
Then on Thursday, a quarter of a million miles away, SpaceIL's Beresheet Lunar Lander is set to make its move on the Moon.
Beresheet was launched back on Feb. 21 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 that it shared with two communications satellites. It took a slow, low-energy route to the Moon, and arrived in orbit a week ago. On Thursday, it’s expected to make its descent to the lunar surface. The lander is targeting a spot on the Sea of Serenity, a few hundred miles from a pair of Apollo landing sites.
The lander is unusual in a number of ways. It’s not the product of the Israeli space program, or of the Israeli government in any form. It’s a privately funded, privately built effort that started in response to the Google Lunar X-Prize. The time limit on Google’s competition expired, but the group behind Beresheet kept going, raising the funds—sometimes in the form of small contributions—to build a golf cart-sized lander along with the system that carried it out of Earth’s orbit and across a two-week journey to the Moon.
So a safe landing by Beresheet could be said to be the first Israeli landing on the Moon (following successful probes from the United States, Russia, and China), but it’s equally fair to call it the first private landing on the Moon. It’s a landing being carried out by space enthusiasts who achieved, on a low budget and with thousands of volunteer hours, something that’s beyond even many national agencies. That’s also very exciting.
The probe should begin the process of descent at around 3:30 ET on Thursday.
Live stream for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch