“I didn’t really think this would work,” he said.
But it did—for the most part. The upper stage, the part of the rocket that carried the Tesla, made it into orbit and broadcast live views of Earth against a star-specked void. Like the launch, you had to see the video to believe it. “You can tell it’s real because it looks so fake,” Musk said. “The colors all look kind of weird in space ... Everything’s too crisp.”
A couple of engine blasts by the upper stage helped push the Tesla way out of Earth’s orbit, and, it appears, toward the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. SpaceX planned to put the Tesla in an orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars, but the car seems to have traveled much farther, according to a graphic Musk shared Tuesday—and which astronomers are still trying to make sense of, based on the numbers provided.
The Falcon Heavy’s side boosters successfully detached and returned to Earth, touching down nearly in unison in a move that looked like something out of science fiction. The rocket’s third and center booster didn’t make it. The core came barreling back to Earth and just missed its target, a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. It hit the water traveling at 300 miles per hour. The impact knocked out two engines on the ship and send debris flying all over the deck. Musk said an igniter in the booster may not have had enough propellant to relight the engines and complete the complicated landing maneuver, which involves a flip in the sky.
SpaceX won’t reuse the recovered side boosters because they aren’t the latest version of the Falcon 9 rocket, and the company will make some tweaks to the Falcon Heavy design for future flights. Musk said there won’t be another major version of the Falcon 9 after the current iteration. Now, he said, the focus—and the resources—will be on the BFR, the company’s next, and even bigger, rocket, which stands for “big” and “rocket” and, well, you can guess what the F stands for. Musk hopes the BFR will someday transport travelers between major cities super fast—New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes, for example—carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit, and someday take humans to the moon and Mars.
Musk said he feels confident the BFR “is really quite workable.” SpaceX could begin testing small liftoff and landing capabilities of parts of the spaceship at its Texas facility as early as next year, he said. The first orbital test flight would come in three to four years, and then to the moon “shortly thereafter,” according to Musk. It’s important to remember that these deadlines are on Musk dream time, which tends to take longer than regular time. When he unveiled designs for the Falcon Heavy in 2011, he said it would launch in 2013.
Musk said he wants to use the BFR to send two paying customers on a trip around the moon, which he announced last year. The Falcon Heavy, meanwhile, won’t be certified to carry humans. This left some people scratching their heads. The decision seemed to leave little for the Falcon Heavy to do, aside from carrying satellites and spacecraft too big for the Falcon 9 to handle. The Heavy is capable of launching more than twice the payload of its nearest competitor, the United Launch Alliance’s Delta Heavy IV. What was left for the Falcon Heavy that was, well, heavy enough?