Commercial space travel took a quantum leap forward today as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket made its maiden flight. At 3:45 pm EST, the world's most powerful operational booster lifted off from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida on a demonstration mission intended to gather information about the reusable launch system before it goes into service.
The launch came after a two-hour and 15 minute delay due to high-altitude shear winds that were outside the rocket's safety parameters. During liftoff, the 27 Merlin 1D engines of the Falcon Heavy's three Falcon 9 core boosters generated 5,548,500 lb of thrust as they gulped down supercooled liquid oxygen and kerosene. Two minutes and 29 seconds into the flight, the two outboard boosters shut down and then separated from the central core four seconds later. The latter shutdown at the three minute and four second mark, then the second stage separated three seconds after.
The second stage then fired for five minutes and 16 seconds, followed by a second burn for 30 seconds. Once the orbital maneuver was executed, it marked a first for SpaceX as its unique payload separated and was set on an elliptical interplanetary trajectory around the Sun that will send it as far as the orbit of Mars.
Because the Falcon Heavy was only given a 50/50 chance of success, SpaceX decided not to risk a functioning spacecraft. In such a situation, it's usual to swap out the satellite with ballast made of blocks of steel or concrete, but in a whimsical move, the company used SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk's midnight-cherry Tesla Roadster. This marks either the first time that a motor car was sent into space or the fourth, if you count the three Lunar Rovers carried on the last three Apollo lunar landing missions in the early 1970s.
In the driver's seat of the Roadster is a mannequin, named "Starman" after the 1972 David Bowie song, who is dressed in one of the spacesuits that will be worn by the passengers and crew on SpaceX's manned dragon missions. In addition, Bowie's hit "Space Oddity" was playing on the car's soundtrack, though in the vacuum of space, there won't be anyone to hear it. However, in a nod to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the words "Don't Panic" were displayed on the dashboard screen in large, friendly letters.
No details were given about the Roadster itself, but it's likely that it was modified to make it suitable for space travel by removing the lithium ion battery banks or replacing them with dummies. Though the Roadster is headed out toward Mars, its trajectory is such that it has no chance of colliding with the Red Planet.
In keeping with SpaceX's policy of developing a fully reusable launch system, the two side boosters, which had already flown before, executed a reentry and landing maneuver to bring them down on SpaceX's Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida to the cheers of the crowd outside of Mission Control. Meanwhile, the center core attempted a sea landing on the company's "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship in the Atlantic Ocean.