In a historic first, SpaceX launched its long-awaited Falcon Heavy rocket Tuesday and landed its two side boosters on land – a feat the Hawthorne, California, space company hopes will lead to increased commercial and national security missions.
The company said it was still waiting on news about the landing of its center core booster, which was set to land on a floating platform at sea.
The launch occurred at 2:45 p.m. Central time from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, the same Florida launch pad where the Saturn V rocket lifted off to take astronauts to the moon. The launch was delayed several times Tuesday to wait out high upper-atmosphere winds.
After liftoff, SpaceX attempted to land all three of Falcon Heavy’s boosters back on the Earth – two on land and one on a floating platform at sea. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk has described the attempt as “synchronized aerial ballet.” Around 8 minutes after liftoff, the two side boosters landed simultaneously on land.
The test payload for this demonstration mission is Musk’s midnight cherry Tesla Roadster, which will be launched toward Mars.
But it will take a difficult road to get there. On a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, Musk said the car – along with a dummy named Starman who is shown on Musk’s Instagram sitting in the driver’s seat while wearing a spacesuit – will do a “grand tour” through the Van Allen belts, an area of high radiation that surrounds the Earth, as part of a 6-hour coast in deep space that is intended to demonstrate to the U.S. Air Force that Falcon Heavy can meet specific orbit insertion requirements.
If the car survives that environment, then it will continue on to an elliptical orbit that at times will come close to Mars, with an “extremely tiny” chance it will actually hit the Red Planet, though Musk said, “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful U.S. rocket since the Saturn V.
First announced to the public in 2011, Falcon Heavy is expected to generate 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff and will be capable of carrying more than 140,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.
With its large payload capacity, the Falcon Heavy is expected to help SpaceX win contracts that require more capability than its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.
“When you’re talking about highly classified payloads or special missions, you really want to be sure you’ve got capacity,” Ellen Tauscher, former U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, who currently serves on SpaceX’s board of advisers, said Tuesday.
Musk first promised that a demonstration flight of the massive rocket would occur in 2012, but the company, whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp., found that development of the 27-engine behemoth was more difficult than initially expected.
After a successful static fire almost 2 weeks ago, anticipation has been building for Falcon Heavy’s first flight. By noon Pacific time Monday, Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center tweeted that no more tickets were available to watch the launch from designated viewing points.
But Musk has tried to temper expectations, going as far as saying that there was a “good chance” the rocket would not make it to orbit on the first flight and that he hoped the rocket made it “far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage.”
“I would even consider that a win, to be honest,” he told an audience at a space conference in Washington this summer.
Tauscher, who as a representative for California’s 10th Congressional District served on the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that the launch would be an opportunity to learn.
“You have to be innovative,” she said. “You have to be willing to do tests that give you the answers you’re looking for.”
On Monday, Musk told reporters that he didn’t feel that stressed about the launch.
“I feel quite giddy and happy, actually,” Musk said. “We’ve done everything we could to maximize the chance of success for this mission.”
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