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.