On Tuesday 6th February at 3:45pm the world’s most powerful new space rocket took to the skies. Designed by SpaceX, CEO Elon Musk claims this could mark the end of the commercial spaceflight race. Is this true or is it simply the beginning? Named Falcon Heavy, the rocket flawlessly ascended from Florida into the heavens and is now in an orbit that stretches into the asteroid belt.
To further add to its success, two of its three reusable boosters returned safely back to earth, touching down about 300m from the landing pads. The centre core then broke away from the vehicle’s upper stage, but didn’t land as intended on one of SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean.
Because this is Musk we’re talking about, the Falcon Heavy launch was anything but ordinary. A cherry red Tesla Roaster sports car was attached to the rocket, complete with dummy driver who was listening to David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’. Ground Control to Major Musk…
“Falcon Heavy heading to space on our test flight, building on the history of Saturn V/Apollo and returning launch pad 39A to interplanetary missions,” a SpaceX announcer said as the rocket lifted off, referring to the historic launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre from which the first manned moon mission took flight in July 1969.
What was the cost of the launch? Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Musk said that recycling rockets keeps the cost of a Falcon heavy launch at about $90m, compared with $435m for the launch of a Delta IV Heavy operated by the United Launch Alliance. The Falcon, Musk added, also possessed almost twice the payload capacity of the Delta.
“If we are successful, it’s game over for other operators of heavy-lift rockets,” Musk said. “It’s like where one aircraft company has reusable aircraft and all the other aircraft companies had aircraft that were single use, and you’d sort of parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash land somewhere. Crazy at it sounds, that’s how the rocket business works.”
The rocket launch was eagerly watched by spectators who paid $195 for a ticket. If you couldn’t get over to Florida, the launch was also live streamed on YouTube. The event reached over 2.3 million concurrent views on YouTube, making it the second biggest live stream ever.
There’s no denying that the space race is changing. Falcon Heavy is heading far beyond Mars, and is expected to reach the asteroid belt before being pulled back to the Sun. With its ‘cheap’ price tag, NASA may use the Falcon Heavy to send robotic missions to other worlds or humans back to the moon. If so, then it’s really made the grade.