LOS ANGELES -- Work is quietly under way on a massive 22-story rocket whose power is rivaled in the U.S. only by the mighty Saturn V rocket, which took man to the moon, in a risky private venture that could herald a new era in space flight.
Dubbed Falcon Heavy, the 27-engine booster is being assembled by rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, at its sprawling complex in Hawthorne, Calif., where it has about 1,100 workers.
The rocket has twice the lifting capability of the next largest launcher built by a U.S. company.
"We're embarking on something that's unprecedented in the space industry," Elon Musk, the company's chief executive, told the Los Angeles Times. "This is territory that has only belonged to the U.S. government -- with its tens of billions of dollars."
Musk's company is building the 227-foot-tall Falcon Heavy even though there are no guarantees that the military or NASA will step forward to pay for the rocket to lift its payloads -- or even astronauts -- into space someday.
SpaceX hopes to launch it in a demonstration flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif., at the end of next year.
The undertaking was hyped all last week on the Internet with a video laden with fiery blast-offs proclaiming "Something new is coming. 4.5.11." The 30-second clip highlighted SpaceX's recent launches, boasted that the work was done "at a fraction of the cost" and asked "What's next?"
The video underscored the unique role that SpaceX hopes to play in shaping the nation's future in space. Launches on the Falcon Heavy would cost from $80 million to $125 million. The company is paying for development costs of the rocket, Musk said, in anticipation that if it builds it, customers will come.
In December, SpaceX became the first private company to blast a spacecraft into Earth's orbit and have it return intact.
The unmanned flight was intended to show NASA that SpaceX could handle the task of carrying cargo into space.
With federal money in short supply, the U.S. government is expected to turn to private industry to play a bigger role in building rockets, carrying cargo, running space missions and possibly carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX's selling point is its low price per launch.
The approach has worked. NASA has already invested $298 million in seed money to help SpaceX develop and build its smaller nine-engine Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon space capsule. The space agency has awarded the company a $1.6-billion contract to have SpaceX's Dragon transport cargo to the space station -- with trips possibly starting later this year.
SpaceX has also signed lucrative deals with commercial satellite makers to lift their precious hardware into space. The company's backlog includes the largest commercial deal of its kind: a $492-million contract with telecommunications company Iridium Communications Inc. of McLean, Va.
"SpaceX has established credibility in the commercial market and with NASA," said Tim Farrar, president of consulting and research firm Telecom, Media & Finance Associates. "The Falcon Heavy is going to open more markets."
SpaceX does not have a contract with the Air Force, which handles communications and spy satellites launches, or the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive federal umbrella agency that operates spy satellites.
Musk said the Falcon Heavy will change that.
"The Air Force has expressed interest," he said. "I'm very confident that we will have a deal by the time of the Falcon Heavy demo flight."
The Pentagon currently has only has one launch provider, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. The company's Delta IV Heavy is the vehicle that lifts its $1-billion satellites into space. It is the nation's largest unmanned rocket, capable of lifting a maximum payload of about 50,000 pounds into low earth orbit. Each rocket costs up to $275 million, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated.
The Falcon Heavy will give the Pentagon another option, Musk said, by being able to lift 117,000 pounds to low Earth orbit and sell for a fraction of the price, Musk said.
"There's no point in matching the competition," he said. "We want to steamroll them. We're trying to make this a complete no-brainer."
SpaceX said it can keep its costs down because it manufacturers almost all of its parts in-house, mostly in a complex in Hawthorne where fuselages for Boeing's 747 jumbo jet were once assembled.
Much like the early days of NASA, the company has a cadre of young engineers -- the average age is in the early 30s -- who work for a fraction of the salary they could make at larger aerospace companies. They work for SpaceX because it operates more like a Silicon Valley start-up than an entrenched rocket builder.
Visitors at SpaceX headquarters are more likely to see an engineer wearing a hoodie or a baseball cap than sporting horn-rimmed glasses and a crew cut.
That's by design. Musk, 39, came from the Silicon Valley. He started SpaceX after making a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal Inc. in 2002. Armed with his personal fortune and venture capitalist contacts, he started SpaceX.
"The best and brightest want to work for them right out of school," said Jay Gullish, a space and telecommunications analyst at Futron Corp., a Bethesda, Md., firm. "They're doing things that in the private sector has never been done before."
Indeed. The last U.S.-built rocket more powerful than the Falcon Heavy was the Saturn V. At the time, rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun oversaw the development of NASA's Apollo missions. That rocket was 350 feet tall and had twice the lifting power of the Falcon Heavy.
Musk envisions a day when the Falcon Heavy not only launches satellites but also carries robots and astronauts to Mars.
"Other than the Saturn V, this is the most capable launcher in history," Musk said. "When this thing goes off, it will be pretty epic."
(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.
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