Space flight

Size matters

The biggest rocket in the world prepares for its maiden voyage

TECHNOLOGICAL progress is not always straightforward. Before Concorde’s first commercial flight in 1976 supersonic passenger-travel was science fiction. Since that aircraft’s last hurrah, in 2003, it has become historical fiction instead. Similarly with rockets, the most powerful built (almost five times more powerful than anything flying today) was the Saturn V, which carried human beings to the moon. It last flew in 1973.

These days, though, big rockets are coming back. On a launching pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, sits the Falcon Heavy, the latest offering from SpaceX, a private space-flight firm. It is 70 metres tall and sports 27 engines (see picture). Collectively, these generate 22.8m newtons of thrust—about as much as eighteen 747 jetliners. That is enough oomph to put almost 64 tonnes of payload into low-Earth orbit. This is, admittedly, still less than half of what the Saturn V could once manage. But it is more than twice as much as the Delta IV Heavy, the current champion.

SpaceX’s engineers carried out a successful static fire test of their machine on January 24, and planned to take the final step and actually try to launch the beast…