SpaceX continued to make aerospace history Tuesday when it successfully launched Falcon Heavy, billed as the most powerful rocket ever assembled, and propelled a cherry red Tesla with a “Starman” driver into a “billion-year journey” to deep space.
The dramatic launch from the same Cape Canaveral launch pad that sent the Apollo missions into space went off after a series of wind-related delays. But once the rocket was cleared for takeoff, it soared from the launch pad into clear skies around 12:45 p.m., sparking an eruption of cheers from workers at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne.
Falcon Heavy is designed to propel manned missions to the moon and eventually cargo flights to Mars. Tuesday’s test launch was a chance for SpaceX to show off the technology, but even company founder Elon Musk was skeptical about whether it would succeed, suggesting the highly complex rocket might fail to reach orbit, or even “explode into tiny pieces.”
But the rocket blasted into space in a picture-perfect launch. It’s two Falcon 9 side-booster rockets separated from the central core and made a stunning simultaneous landing back at Cape Canaveral, continuing the company’s commitment to reusing the multimillion-dollar rockets.
The second stage central core also separated successfully once the payload was deployed, and made a return journey to Earth, where SpaceX attempted to land it on its drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You,” in the Atlantic Ocean. It was not immediately clear if that landing attempt succeeded.
SpaceX’s webcast of the mission gave viewers a glimpse of the view from inside the payload — Musk’s own convertible red Tesla, being “driven” by a SpaceX-designed space suit propped up in the driver’s seat, making it look like somebody out for a casual cruise.
The dashboard video panel display read “Don’t Panic!,” a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
The mission plan calls for the Tesla to begin an elliptical orbit around the sun, ultimately intercepting the orbital path of Mars. Musk wrote on Twitter last year that the usual test cargo of concrete or steel blocks “seemed extremely boring,” so he opted to “send something unusual” into space for the trip.
“The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing `Space Oddity,’ on a billion year elliptical Mars orbit,” he wrote.
The platform on which the car is mounted also includes a plaque with the name of more than 6,000 SpaceX employees. It also carries a high-tech storage disk, which is loaded with science-fiction author Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” book series.
The 230-feet-tall, 27-engine Falcon Heavy is essentially triple the size of SpaceX’s traditional Falcon 9 rockets, which are used for satellite launches and cargo missions to the International Space Station. According SpaceX, the liftoff thrust of Falcon Heavy is roughly equivalent to 18 full- powered 747 jetliners.
Musk called Falcon Heavy “the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two and the highest payload launch vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket.”
The Falcon Heavy included a massive center rocket booster, coupled with two side rocket boosters — which are actually two previously used Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX has been perfecting the system of recovering Falcon 9 rockets for re-use in future missions — shaving millions of dollars from the cost of satellite launches.
Musk has had high hopes for the Falcon Heavy vehicle, even suggesting that it might be used to send two people on a trip around the moon later this year, and ultimately used for regular cargo missions to Mars.
But Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch was repeatedly delayed, in part by a 2016 explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket in Florida that destroyed a multimillion-dollar satellite.