SpaceX’s ‘Falcon Heavy’ Most Powerful Private Rocket Ever

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SpaceX‘s ‘Falcon Heavy’ new commercial super-rocket isn’t messing around: It’ll be the most powerful private rocket ever built, twice as roomy as NASA’s Space Shuttle, and second in size only to the Apollo program’s mammoth Saturn V.

“This is a rocket of truly huge scale,” said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk during a press event.

Sequel to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy can carry three times as much cargo, up to 53 metrics tons a pop. That’s 117,000 pounds in the trunk, or twice what you might cram into a Boeing 737 jet.

“Falcon Heavy sets a new world record for the cost per pound to orbit,” said Musk. “That’s a pretty huge leap in capability.”

It’s also a shot across the bow of rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin, whose joint Delta IV Heavy rocket will only be capable of hauling half as much.

While it’ll initially be unmanned–no hauling human joyriders into orbit (well, unless you’re The Incredible Hulk)–SpaceX says it meets human flight standards and could even be employed for missions to the Moon or Mars.

“It opens up a range of possibilities for government and commercial customers,” said Musk.

SpaceX says it’ll run a flight demo of Falcon Heavy in late 2012, then launch a year or two later from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with plans to eventually put about 10 Falcon Heavy rockets into orbit annually.

How much will it cost? Try $80 to $125 million per launch–dramatically less than the Delta IV, claims Musk, adding that the rocket “represents a huge economic advantage.”

And with any luck, a huge “keep-spaceflight-alive” boost, too.