WASHINGTON – SpaceX unveiled Tuesday what its chief executive Elon Musk has called the world's most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, which will have its first demonstration flight at the end of 2012.
The launcher is designed to lift into orbit satellites or spacecraft weighing more than 53 metric tons, or 117,000 pounds -- more than twice the capacity of the Space Shuttle or Delta IV Heavy launcher.
"Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program," Musk said at the National Press Club.
"This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions," he said.
Musk, a South African who made his fortune in the Internet, created SpaceX in 2002.
"Falcon Heavy will arrive at our Vandenberg, California, launch complex by the end of next year, with liftoff to follow soon thereafter. First launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014," he said.
His goal in the coming years is to transport cargo and astronauts for NASA to the International Space Station after the US space shuttles are finally retired in June.
Until there is a successor to the shuttles, NASA will depend exclusively on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the ISS.
SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, is one of two private companies that NASA has contracted to transport cargo to the International Space Station.
To give a sense of the rocket's might: 53 metric tons is more than the top take-off weight of a loaded Boeing 737-200 with 136 passengers. So Falcon Heavy can deliver the equivalent of an entire commercial jetload of passengers, crew, luggage and fuel all the way to orbit.