WASHINGTON — SpaceX made history Tuesday afternoon when it successfully launched its new Falcon Heavy rocket carrying an electric car bound for deep space and returned two of three 15-story boosters back to Earth for perfect vertical landings.
The initial test launch of what is now the world’s most powerful operational rocket marks the latest milestone in billionaire Elon Musk’s quest to send humans to Mars and eventually colonize the red planet.
The Falcon Heavy consists of three Falcon 9 rockets, which SpaceX has been using for years to deploy satellites and run resupply missions to the International Space Station. With 27 engines, Falcon Heavy gives off more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff — equivalent to 18 Boeing 747 aircraft — and is capable lifting 140,000 pounds into orbit. That’s equivalent to a fully loaded 737 aircraft.
That Tuesday’s launch at 3:45 p.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida went off without a hitch is remarkable.
“This is a test mission,” Musk told The New York Times ahead of liftoff. “There is so much that can go wrong.”
In an interview with CNN, Musk warned that spectators could expect either “a great rocket launch or the best fireworks display they’ve ever seen.”
The payload on the inaugural test flight was, rather appropriately, a product of Musk’s other brainchild, Tesla. The electric car, a red convertible Roadster, is slated to be deployed six hours after liftoff. If all goes well, it and a dummy driver named “Starman” will be sent into orbit around the sun. They will reach a speed of 7 miles per second and travel approximately 250 million miles from Earth, eventually passing close by the red planet.
The car could remain in orbit for a billion years. And there’s an “extremely tiny” chance that it could crash into Mars, Musk told The New York Times.
“That was awesome,” a SpaceX commentator said roughly five minutes into the launch. “That’s all I can really say.”
Along with a successful maiden launch, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, managed to recover two of its boosters. Both were used during previous flights in 2016 and landed simultaneously on land at Cape Canaveral.
A third booster was expected to land on a floating platform in the Atlantic. But instead of capturing a successful landing, the onboard camera appeared to show smoke before cutting out entirely. More than 45 minutes after the launch, SpaceX had not provided an update on the fate of the center booster.
In late 2015, the company sent shockwaves through the space community when it landed a booster back on Earth — the first ever successful attempt to recover a rocket from an orbital flight. At the time a SpaceX commentator compared the feat to “launching a pencil over the Empire State Building, having it reverse, come back down, and land on a shoebox on the ground during a windstorm.”
Less than a year later, after four failed attempts to land a Falcon 9 on floating platforms in the Atlantic, SpaceX nailed a seemingly impossible at-sea landing aboard a drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You.”
SpaceX is developing rockets that can be reused in an effort to make space flight cheaper and easier. While it costs between $200,000 to $300,000 to refill the rocket, the rocket itself costs $60 million, Musk has said.
The effort has come with many setbacks. In September 2016, for example, a Falcon 9 burst into flames on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Musk called it “the most difficult and complex failure” the company has had in its 14-year history.
In 2016, Musk unveiled plans to make humans a “multi-planet species.” He hopes to eventually build a self-sustainable Martian colony of 1 million people by building a massive “Interplanetary Transport System.” Like something out of a science fiction film, giant spaceships would shuttle upward of 100 people ― perhaps many more in the future ― plus luggage and other cargo to and from the red planet.
To help pay for it, the billionaire business magnate and tech entrepreneur has proposed launching a network of 4,425 satellites ― each the size of a car ― to provide the entire globe with high-speed internet.
Tuesday’s launch by SpaceX comes just a few days after BuzzFeed News published an exposé on workers’ injuries at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California. Tesla operates the only nonunion U.S.-owned vehicle plant in the nation.