|The Falcon Heavy / Image courtesy of SpaceX|
The Falcon Heavy will be able to lift more than twice the weight of any other rocket currently flying, including the U.S. Space Shuttle. "This is a rocket of truly huge scale," said Musk during today's press conference in Washington.
There has only been one rocket in history that was capable of carrying more payload to orbit. That was, of course, Wernher von Braun's Saturn V which last flew in 1973. The Falcon Heavy will be able to haul 53,000 kg, or 116,600 lbs, into low Earth orbit. (That's more than four Hubble Space Telescopes, to give you an idea of this rocket's capabilities.)
Here is a description from the SpaceX press release:
The Falcon Heavy is designed for extreme reliability and can tolerate the failure of several engines and still complete its mission. As on commercial airliners, protective shells surround each engine to contain a worst-case situation such as fire or a chamber rupture, and prevent it from affecting the other engines and stages.
Falcon Heavy will be the first rocket in history to feature propellant cross-feed from the side boosters to the center core. Propellant cross-feeding leaves the center core still carrying the majority of its propellant after the side boosters separate. This gives Falcon Heavy performance comparable to that of a three-stage rocket, even though only the single Merlin engine on the upper stage requires ignition after lift-off, further improving both reliability and payload performance. Should cross-feed not be required for lower mass missions, it can be easily turned off.
The Falcon Heavy has also been designed to meet NASA's standards for carrying astronauts. This is quite a timely announcement, given that the very last Space Shuttle launch is scheduled for June 28 of this year (which, quite coincidentally, is Elon Musk's birthday as well as my own! - JL)