SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket has blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., much to the delight of Elon Musk, who said the launch went as well as he could have hoped and showed him that "crazy things come true."
The Falcon Heavy is designed to be the most powerful rocket in use, and many hope it will make it easier to get humans past low-Earth orbit, back to the moon and even to Mars.
The 23-storey tall Falcon Heavy roared off its launch pad at 3:45 p.m. ET at the Kennedy Space Center, from the same site used by NASA's towering Saturn V rockets to carry Apollo missions to the moon more than 40 years ago.
Two of the boosters landed as planned back in Florida, while a third was meant to land on an ocean platform.
It didn't, according to Musk, SpaceX's founder and CEO. He says he doesn't yet have the exact details, but initial reports suggest it slammed into the ocean at a speed of around 500 km/h.
In a news conference after the launch, Musk said the afternoon had been surreal.
"I didn't really think this would work," Musk told reporters, saying he knew all the different ways things could go wrong. Before the launch, he said he was imagining failure — including a launchpad explosion, complete with the logo tumbling to earth with a thud.
Musk said he's seen rockets blow up in so many different ways and that it's always a "big relief" when things actually work as planned.
Though the maiden launch is unmanned, there is a special payload: a Tesla roadster with a dummy called Starman destined to orbit the sun between Mars and Earth.
Musk acknowledged the image of the car and Starman is sort of "silly and fun," but he said silly and fun is important.
For now, people can see the view, but that will end when the batteries die.
"I think it looks so ridiculous and impossible," he said of the view. "You can tell it's real because it looks so fake," he said, noting that colours look different in images from space.
When asked what he learned, Musk said he learned that "crazy things come true."
What is the Falcon Heavy?
SpaceX's workhorse rocket is the Falcon 9, named for its number of engines. It's used to launch satellites and for supply missions to the International Space Station.
What makes the Falcon 9 special is its reusability: Once launched, the rocket's first stage returns to Earth, landing at Cape Canaveral.
The Heavy is made up of three Falcon 9s — two of them launching today have been used before — for a total of 27 engines.
It should be capable of lifting some 63,800 kilograms into low-Earth orbit (LEO). The Delta IV Heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in production, can carry roughly 22,560 kilograms.
What's the big deal?
The launch is historic: it is the most powerful rocket in production and the first such rocket built by a private company.
Musk has long said his goal is to make access to space affordable and his reusable rockets are what's cutting the costs. The Falcon Heavy has a price tag of $90 million per launch compared to roughly $500 million for the second most powerful rocket, the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy.
"This is a big first for just getting things into low-Earth orbit, but it's also a big deal for commercial space because a company is about to put potentially 140,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, years ahead of NASA's expensive Space Launch System," said space historian Randy Attwood, referring to NASA's next-generation rocket, which is scheduled to launch in 2020.
"They're doing it earlier, they're doing it cheaper and the capability of the first stage is incredible."
"It represents big changes in space in the future in that it's going to get cheaper to space which means we'll be doing more of space, which I think is good for humanity," Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen told CBC News.
"This rocket represents progress for SpaceX, and they're already making a great contribution to space exploration and utilization of space," he said.
An earlier version of this story put the price of the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy at more than $1 billion. In fact, it cost roughly $500 million.Feb 06, 2018 6:14 PM ET