CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—You had to see it to believe it, and even then, you weren’t quite sure it really happened. The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, stunned spectators on Tuesday—including the man who invented it.
“It seems surreal to me,” Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, said Tuesday night, a few hours after the flight. “I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad.”
Instead, SpaceX made history. The Falcon Heavy now joins the club historically reserved for the U.S. government, not commercial companies run by quirky billionaires who sell flamethrowers and punny hats so they can dig long-running tunnels in the ground. At about 3:45 p.m. ET on Tuesday, 15 minutes before the day’s launch window closed, the Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines ignited with a roar and the rocket shot up into the sky, buoyed by a golden tail of fire. It disappeared from view within minutes. The scene at Kennedy Space Center—the cheers, the traffic, a sense of shared adrenaline—recalled the days of NASA’s Space Shuttle flights, which took off from the very same launchpad.
Musk rarely addresses a room full of reporters about SpaceX, but a victory lap was certainly in order Tuesday night. After all, Musk had just successfully put in space a cherry-red Tesla convertible, with a mannequin wearing a SpaceX space suit that took three years to design, sitting inside. Musk, wearing a plain black T-shirt, appeared calm and almost a little dazed.
“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?
“It can launch things right to Pluto and beyond, no stop needed,” Musk said. “It can do anything you want.”
He added that the company has “a number” of commercial customers for the Heavy. He predicts the rocket will fly several times a year.
Rockets aside, SpaceX is also working on developing a space transportation system that NASA will use to send astronauts to the International Space Station, which Musk said Tuesday was “top priority.” NASA expects the first un-crewed test flights by SpaceX and Boeing, which is developing its own system, to occur late this year. A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the companies have a “considerable amount of work” to do to meet safety standards. SpaceX may not get certified for regular flights to the ISS until December 2019, and Boeing until February 2020, the report found.
President Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations on the launch Tuesday night. “This achievement, along with NASA’s commercial and international partners, continues to show American ingenuity at its best,” the president said. Musk replied, “An exciting future lies ahead!” The Trump administration has expressed considerable interest in boosting the nation’s spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit and has put an emphasis on the moon as a destination, and not just a quick stop on Americans’ journey to Mars. Musk said the Falcon Heavy could carry classified national-security satellites for the government, but it’s not clear whether Musk would consider working directly with the Trump White House on some of their lunar ambitions—or whether the White House would approach him. Musk removed himself from a presidential advisory council last year over his disagreement with Trump’s decision to pull the United States from a climate-change agreement that includes virtually every nation on Earth.
For now, Musk and SpaceX can spend a few months basking in the afterglow of a launch many thought would end up in flames. The product of the launch will last much longer than that. The Tesla’s batteries are expected to die after about 12 hours, but the car will coast through the solar system for perhaps hundreds of millions of years. It will be, by definition, space junk. A very good-looking and out-of-place piece of space junk.
“The imagery of it is something that’s gonna get people excited around the world,” Musk said. He paused, and it seemed as if he was no longer seeing the crowd in front of him. “It’s still tripping me out.”
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