A Triumphant First Launch for Elon Musk's Giant Rocket

SpaceX’s 27-engine Falcon Heavy successfully blasted off from Florida with a cherry-red Tesla convertible in tow.

The Falcon Heavy lifts off from Kennedy Space Center.
Joe Skipper / Reuters

Updated on February 6 at 7:29 p.m. ET

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—Seven years ago, the Falcon Heavy was a model rocket, sitting on a table in a conference room in Washington, D.C., in front of some reporters and a couple empty seats.

On Tuesday, the rocket dreamed up by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stood 230 feet tall, on the famed launchpad at Kennedy Space Center where the Saturn V flew the first humans to the moon. An estimated 100,000 people traveled here to watch the Falcon Heavy power up and rise into the sky.

At about 3:45 p.m., the rocket’s 27 engines roared into life and thick plumes of white smoke unfurled from the pad. Within seconds, it was airborne and climbing against the backdrop of a clear blue sky over Florida’s Space Coast. Along for the ride was a cherry-red Tesla convertible, with a dummy called Starman wearing a SpaceX space suit sitting in the driver’s seat. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” blasted from the speakers.

It was a perfect day for a rocket launch.

After the Heavy left the launchpad and pierced the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere, the rocket’s boosters detached. In a complicated and delicate maneuver that SpaceX has nearly perfected in the last few years, the side boosters changed course and returned to Earth less than 10 minutes after liftoff, where they touched down at matching landing zones at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The center booster, which SpaceX planned to land on its drone ship off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, didn’t make it, Musk confirmed Tuesday night a press conference with reporters at Kennedy Space Center. Musk said the booster struck the water at 300 miles per hour. It came close, though; Musk said the impact scattered debris over the ship. He said they will try to salvage some footage of the hit.

“If the cameras didn’t get blown up as well, then we’ll put that out,” he said.

The upper stage of the rocket, which carried the Tesla, meanwhile, is cruising along just fine. Here’s a video Musk shared about an hour after liftoff, thanks to cameras mounted around the car:

And a livestream:

The successful maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy restored a capability the United States lost years ago. The last time a powerful heavy-lift launch vehicle left Cape Canaveral was in 2011, when the Space Shuttle made its final flight after 30 years of ferrying astronauts back and forth from low-Earth orbit. Before that, it was the Saturn V rocket, the massive vehicle NASA used to send Apollo astronauts to the moon.

In 2018, the year NASA marks its 60th anniversary, the U.S. government is no longer doing the heavy lifting. That business, at least for now, falls for the first time in American spaceflight history to a commercial rocket company.

NASA is currently building a heavy-lift rocket of its own, the Space Launch System, or SLS, that will surpass the Heavy in liftoff and payload capacity and is supposed to someday return humans to the moon. But the first flight of the SLS is expected in late 2019, and delays could push that even further, so SpaceX will enjoy, at least for a while, the perks of holding an American record.

A day before the launch, Musk said he wasn’t feeling nervous.

“What I find strange about this flight is, normally I feel super stressed out the day before,” Musk told reporters in a teleconference at Kennedy Space Center. “This time, I don’t. Maybe a bad sign. I’m not sure. But I feel quite confident and happy, actually. I’m really hopeful for this flight going as planned. We’ve done everything we can. I’m sure we’ve done everything we could do to maximize the chance of success in this mission.”

The Falcon Heavy’s successful flight means that the Heavy is now the most powerful rocket in operation, surpassing its nearest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy of the United Launch Alliance, when it comes to lifting payload. In the future, the rocket will be capable of lifting more weight than any other U.S.-made rocket since the Saturn V. At an estimated $90 million per launch, the Falcon Heavy makes the cheapest heavy-lift launch option for potential customers ranging from commercial satellite companies to NASA. Delta IV Heavy launches can run upward of $400 million, and SLS, an expendable rocket, is expected to cost $1 billion per launch.

The launch marked the first time SpaceX tested such a complicated booster separation and recovery sequence.

Here’s the flight path Musk shared on social media hours before the launch:

The center booster made a successful separation. The upper stage of the rocket—with the Tesla in tow—continued on. In orbit, the stage will coast for about six hours and then fire up its engine again to help put the Tesla in an elliptical orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars. That’s what Musk means when he says he’s sending his Tesla to the red planet.

“I’m not worried about the car,” Musk said Monday. “It’s gonna be fine.”

Musk said he expects the Tesla to zoom around in orbit for hundreds of millions of years. “At times it will come extremely close to Mars,” he said. “And there’s a tiny chance that it will hit Mars. Extremely tiny.”

Starman in Red Roadster

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Many, including Musk himself, thought the Heavy launch was as likely to go up in flames as it was to leave Earth. Musk told reporters on Monday that if the Heavy did explode, he hoped the rocket would travel far enough to avoid damaging the historic launchpad, which would be costly and take months to repair.

SpaceX is on a high right now. It ended 2017 with a company-record-breaking 18 launches of its smaller Falcon 9 rocket, accounting for most of the orbital launches on U.S. soil. The company’s failures, including explosions in 2015 and 2016 that destroyed rockets and payloads and damaged a launchpad, are quickly receding in the rearview mirrors. The focus now is on the increased cadence of launches the company has promised for 2018, and the far bigger BFR, the rocket previously known as the Interplanetary Transport System. Musk says the development of the BFR is “moving quickly.” He hopes the BFR will fast-track international travel, launch satellites and spacecraft, and carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit, the moon, and Mars.

When the Saturn V blasted off from the Earth in the 1960s with Apollo astronauts in tow, the idea of someone other than a nation’s esteemed federal space agency doing the work of launching stuff—any stuff, from communications satellites to humans, let alone an electric car—seemed impossible. No one had even thought to entertain the idea. In a short time—in the last few years, really—SpaceX took this prospect and turned into not only a reality, but a regular occurrence.

“A lot of people thought we couldn’t do it—a lot, actually,” Musk said in 2008 when, after three failed attempts, SpaceX launched the Falcon 1 rocket into orbit from an atoll in the Marshall Islands, becoming the first private rocket company to do it. “[Reaching orbit] is normally a country thing, not a company thing.”

A decade later, reaching orbit and beyond is very much a company thing.