Quirks & Quarks

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch 'a true turning point in our journey into space'

'The big boosters, flying in perfect formation, gently settled themselves below a line of trees'
This image from video provided by SpaceX shows the company's spacesuit in Elon Musk's red Tesla sports car which was launched into space during the first test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. (SpaceX/Associated Press)
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Bob McDonald was on the ground at Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, to witness the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. You can read about his impressions of the launch on Bob's blog.

The launch was full of suspense and drama.  It was delayed by a couple of hours due to high winds, but then at 3:45pm the three rocket boosters, with 27 powerful engines, lit simultaneously, and the huge rocket lifted into the sky. For SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, it was a great relief. He'd constantly downplayed expectations for this test launch and had been imagining the worst case scenario. "I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, with a wheel bouncing down the road and a Tesla logo landing somewhere with a thud" he said in a press conference after the launch.

That was a reference to the payload being carried by the Falcon Heavy into space. Enclosed in the fairing at the top of the 20-story rocket was Musk's own cherry-red Tesla roadster. The test flight was too risky for a real payload like a satellite. So in a moment of inspired whimsy, Musk decided to launch his car into space, complete with a dummy driver in a custom space-suit. The pictures of the car and "driver" in the blackness of space, with the Earth behind them, have gone around the world, and already become an internet meme.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches on its first flight (SpaceX)
While the payload for this launch was clearly for entertainment, the payload is really the first important thing about Falcon Heavy. It's a tremendously powerful vehicle, capable of carrying more into space than any rocket since the mighty Saturn V sent American astronauts to the Moon. That in itself should make new kinds of space missions possible - including, potentially, missions to other planets.

Perhaps the more more important accomplishment by SpaceX was symbolized by the spectacular simultaneous landing at the Kennedy Space Centre of the two side boosters about eight minutes after launch. These boosters had separated from the central core a few minutes after launch, then reversed course, and guided themselves back for perfect twin touchdowns.  As Elon Musk said, "It was epic. I think that was the most exciting thing I've ever seen - literally ever."

Falcon Heavy side boosters landing at the Kennedy Space Center (SpaceX)
Remarkably, both boosters had flown and landed before. So with this flight SpaceX wasn't just proving it could launch a huge rocket, but that it could do it with recycled rockets. For decades the goal of reuseability has been a dream of those involved in spaceflight. Rockets are expensive, and using them only once has often been compared to throwing away a jetliner after every flight. With this flight SpaceX was underlining the fact that they are mastering reuseability which is a tremendous competitive advantage for them, and should make access to space far less expensive.