Space privateers to launch biggest rocket since 70s

The space race is no longer just between nations. Space X, a private firm based in California, has stolen a march on Nasa by unveiling plans to launch the most powerful private rocket ever built.

Named Falcon Heavy, the new rocket can carry more cargo than a fully-laden Boeing 737 aircraft and does not only exist in blueprint form – it promises to be complete by the end of next year. It will be the the largest rocket since the Apollo-era Saturn V.

In 2010 Space X stunned the world after it became the first private company to launch a craft that orbited the Earth twice and landed safely within just three hours. Its founder Elon Musk, the American engineer-turned-entrepreneur who made his fortune after co-founding the global online payment system PayPal, promises that Falcon Heavy will bring "revolutionary change, not evolutionary change" to the field of space exploration. "The public should be very excited about this. It re-establishes US leadership in space," he said.

The announcement comes at a crucial time for US space missions, which have been in a state of flux since Barack Obama finally called time on Nasa's long-running space shuttle programme. "America's infamous space agency is currently depending on Russian Soyuz rockets for its missions," said Tim Horbury, professor of physics at Imperial College London. "That is not a great position for it to be in."

President Obama recently announced a $6bn (£3.6bn) plan to help private firms develop reliable and affordable rocket launchers to transport cargo and US astronauts into space. Nasa has also signed contracts with several private firms, including a $1.9bn deal with Orbital Space Corporation for eight launches of its Taurus II rocket, scheduled to take place next year.

Space X has become known and admired for the speed and efficiency of its products. "Private firms have been making inroads into this market ever since 2002, but very few are doing it quite as logically and cheaply," said Professor Horbury. "It backs its own ambition and has an extremely tight focus of development that means each new model is a clever extension of the last."

Transporting equipment into space has long been vital for countries with their own space programmes, but the pursuit of this aim has led to many thwarted attempts. The former Soviet Union built a giant moon rocket bigger than Falcon Heavy, which failed in all four of its launch attempts. Another Soviet rocket, again larger than Falcon Heavy, had just one successful flight more than 20 years ago.

"The sheer ability to haul so much gear into space could very well accelerate the time it takes to build bases on the Moon and explore Mars," Professor Horbury added. "It gives spacecraft a higher chance of returning from missions."

After several launches, Mr Musk believes his rockets will be capable of transporting people – although such a hobby is likely to be the preserve of the super-rich, given that each launch costs an estimated $100m. But if the project helps to resurrect America's standing as the world leader in space exploration, many would argue that $100m a try is a small price to pay.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture