WASHINGTON — The director of launchers of the French space agency, CNES, on March 11 entered the European debate about the inaugural flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, apparently in an effort to dispel public misconceptions.
Jean-Marc Astorg, who has a reputation as someone who does not seek the limelight, issued an unusual video on Twitter that basically defended SpaceX’s launch of a roadster into a heliocentric orbit. Concerns about space debris around the Sun, he said, are hyperventilated.
“Around the Sun there’s plenty of room!” Astorg said.
“There is no problem here regarding debris,” he said. “The debris we’re woreied about is in Earth orbit, where there are lots of satellites and lots of debris, and the concern is that debris will hit a satellite. The most-concerned orbits are between 200 and 1,000 kilometers in altitude.”
For the most part, Astorg’s comments were a typical engineer’s-eye view of the Falcon Heavy launch.
He said it is common for launch-service providers to conduct demonstration flights because of the higher risks associated with inaugural flights. He did not mention, but could have, the inaugural flight of Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 in 1996 as Exhibit A in the case for demonstration flights.
The decision was made that the rocket would be so reliable — initially it was designed to carry astronauts — that a maiden flight would pose no special risks. The result was that four European science satellites ended up in the swamps around the Guiana Space Center, Europe’s spaceport on the northeast coast of South America.
In addition to proving the vehicle’s basic flight-worthiness, the Falcon Heavy mission was designed to place a payload into orbit, and to return the three first stages to Earth. The two side boosters would land near the Kennedy Space Center spaceport, on land, and at the third would land on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
The side boosters returned in a spectacular ballet whose video went viral. The central core booster was lost in the Atlantic Ocean.
Astorg said returning all through may have been important to prove the Falcon Heavy’s economic model with respect to the Falcon 9, whose power has grown hugely since the Falcon Heavy design began.
“The launch was a success with respect to all matters concerning the launcher’s capacity to put payloads into orbit and to demonstrate the high performance of Falcon Heavy,” Astorg said.
On the orbit itself, which SpaceX first described as aiming for Mars, he said:
“When we aim for Martian orbit we need to launch at a very precise time. For this launch there was a two-hour delay with respect to T minus O, which explains why the Mars orbit was not reached.
“The rocket secured a heliocentric orbit with a vehicle that orbits the Sun.”