The visionary Elon Musk and his company SpaceX once again make space history. SpaceX has successfully launched the Falcon Heavy, currently the world’s strongest rocket. The 70-meter high rocket had lift off on Tuesday from the spaceport at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The spectacle at Cape Canaveral Spaceport was attended by tens of thousands of onlookers. The hotels on the so-called Space Coast in Florida have been fully booked for a long time. The former astronaut Buzz Aldrin also followed the events on site. The “Falcon Heavy” was launched from the same ramp once used by the manned Apollo 11 mission.
Aerospace entrepreneur Elon Musk had estimated the chances of success only at 50%. It would be deemed a success if the SpaceX rocket takes off safely without destroying the launch platform. The intention of the test flight was to return the three propulsion stages of the rocket back to Earth, because SpaceX is also in the business of recycling rockets. The reuse of the rockets should reduce costs drastically. One day, rockets like airplanes are to be used again and again, Elon Musk imagines.
Recycling rockets, Musk said, keeps the cost of a Falcon heavy launch at about $90m, compared with $435m for the launch of a Delta IV Heavy operated by the United Launch Alliance. The Falcon, Musk added, also possessed almost twice the payload capacity of the Delta.
“If we are successful, it’s game over for other operators of heavy-lift rockets,” Musk said. “It’s like where one aircraft company has reusable aircraft and all the other aircraft companies had aircraft that were single use, and you’d sort of parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash land somewhere. Crazy at it sounds, that’s how the rocket business works.”
Musk has found the perfect utensil for making space exploration exciting to everyone again: a Tesla Roadster. Sitting rather nonchalantly inside the car, with one hand resting on the car’s door was Starman, SpaceX’s ambassador to the stars. Thankfully for SpaceX and Starman, the spaceman was actually a mannequin wearing the company’s production space suit. The suit which was revealed by SpaceX founder Elon Musk last year, will eventually be worn by the company’s astronauts in the future. Without a human element, even the fiery eruptions of a rocket launch can start to feel repetitive, especially in our present age of instant access to the spectacular and otherworldly.
The SpaceX team added fun touches like a “Made on Earth by Humans” printed on a circuit board and a “Don’t Panic” message on the dashboard. All the while Starman is listening to David Bowie’s hit “Space Oddity” (“Ground Control to Major Tom”). This is science served with a side of coolness.
The side boosters landed, touching down at Kennedy Air Force Station, the designated landing pads SpaceX uses to recover its reusable rockets. But the core, middle booster, which attempted to land aboard “Of Course I Still Love You,” a drone barge that SpaceX uses as a mobile, ocean-borne landing pad stationed in the Atlantic for its flights departing from Florida, wasn’t recovered.
In a press conference after yesterday’s launch, Musk said early reports suggested the rocket hit the water at 480km/h and sprayed the drone ship with shrapnel. The landing failed after just one of core’s three engines re-lit for the landing burn, causing it to crash into the surface of the ocean.
Elon Musk demonstrates what people are capable of when they are willing to risk everything. For the billionaire and entrepreneur Elon Musk, the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy is yet another milestone in how he is advancing technology in the space industry. Founded twelve years ago, the SpaceX space company, which now has over 6,000 employees, has now launched a total of 54 rockets from the Falcon families.
SpaceX plans to launch 30 rockets this year alone, including two more of the Falcon Heavy. In addition, Elon Musk has already presented plans for an even bigger rocket than the Falcon Heavy.
For now, we’re in a spot where we can take a deep breath, watch an empty space suit in a used sports car wander into deep space, and get ready for what comes next.