Thom Baur / Reuters
After lifting off from the Florida launchpad that once sent astronauts to the moon, SpaceX’s jumbo Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched Tuesday.
The 230-foot tall rocket built of three Falcon 9 strapped-together rocket boosters soared above the light clouds above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:45 p.m. ET, its launch initially delayed two hours by high-altitude winds.
The test flight — SpaceX honcho Elon Musk had set expectations of success at 50/50 earlier — aimed to deliver a red Tesla roadster sports car, equipped with an astronaut-suited dummy (nicknamed “Starman”) in the driver’s seat, on a trajectory to the orbit of Mars.
“Falcon Heavy is on its way into space,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said.
The most powerful rocket now in operation, the $90 million Falcon Heavy, packs the equivalent of 4 million pounds of TNT in power. On Monday, Musk had said if the first Falcon Heavy launch “clears the pad,” survived supersonic flight, and made it through the moment of maximum stress on the rocket in the first 100 seconds after liftoff, “those would be big wins.”
It easily delivered on all three.
“All of us in this business know the effort it takes to get to a first
flight of any new vehicle and recognize the tremendous accomplishment we
witnessed today,” NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. The space agency is working on its own heavy lift rocket, the $23 billion Space Launch System, which recently delayed its first launch until 2019.
“The launch of Falcon Heavy signals a new era in super-heavy lift launch vehicles,” said Phil Larson of the University of Colorado, who has worked both for SpaceX and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“Falcon Heavy’s success, and the other commercial rockets that will follow, has major implications for the growth of the space industry here in the United States.”
One of the challenges of the test flight was the landing of all three first-stage Falcon 9 rocket cores. The side rockets aimed for landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which they nailed simultaneously. The longer-firing central core aimed for a landing pad on an unmanned barge 300 miles off the Florida coast.
Musk suggested on Monday that a successful launch of the Falcon Heavy would mean “game over” for more expensive competitors, such as the Atlas V and the Ariane V rockets, which don’t rely on reusable rockets to launch satellites into geostationary orbit.
George Washington University space economist Henry Hertzfeld disagreed however, telling BuzzFeed News. “He has overstated the case. There are many issues and considerations in choosing a launch vehicle; not just price,” he told BuzzFeed News, notably reliability and experience working with a contractor.
Before heading to the orbit of Mars, the sports car carried by the Falcon Heavy atop its second stage rocket will have to pass repeatedly through the two radiation belts surrounding Earth, some 620 miles and 37,000 miles high. SpaceX needs to demonstrate this coasting time to the US Air Force, which needs the capability to launch some of its largest satellites to geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above Earth.
If the electronics aboard the second stage of the rocket survive the radiation bath and correctly refire the rocket engines, the roadster will cycle between the orbit of Earth and Mars for hundreds of millions of years, according to Musk, traveling 24,600 miles-per-hour. The roadster carries three cameras and a digital library holding Isaac Asimov’s classic science fiction series, Foundation, along with a dashboard reminder — “Don’t Panic” — a nod to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy science fiction parody.
“There is a tiny, tiny, chance it will hit Mars,” he said Monday. “Extremely tiny. I wouldn’t hold your breath.”