KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA An extraordinary ballet was danced through the skies over central Florida on Tuesday, as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket passed its first test launch with flying colours.
With its highly anticipated first flight behind it, the Falcon Heavy is now the world's most powerful operational rocket by a factor of two, capable of lifting 63,500 kilograms of cargo into low-Earth orbit. Only the Saturn V rocket that sent humans to the moon has lifted so much, so far.
On the morning of the flight, excitement at NASA's Kennedy Space Center was palpable. Five hours before launch, more than a kilometre of traffic snaked out of the visitor complex's entrance, backing up past the brand-new factory of SpaceX competitor Blue Origin.
At 3:45 p.m. ET, the Falcon Heavy's 27 Merlin rocket engines staggered to life with a triumphant roar that could be heard for kilometres. The rocket lifted off from NASA's launchpad 39A—the point of departure for the Apollo moon missions and the space shuttle fleet—and began its ascent, carrying with it a modified Tesla Roadster blaring David Bowie's “Space Oddity.”
Watch the SpaceX Falcon Heavy first flight
In a short eight minutes, Falcon Heavy's side boosters separated from the main stack, pirouetted in mid-air, and returned to land, as if the launch were being rewound.
The centre section continued upward until it jettisoned the rocket's upper stage, and then it turned around to land on SpaceX's drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, which was bobbing along in the Atlantic Ocean. As of 4:07 p.m. ET, it remains unclear whether the centre core stuck its landing.
The upper stage carrying the sports car now faces a foreboding five hours in the Van Allen belt, a swath of high-energy solar particles trapped by Earth's magnetic field.
If the punishing radiation doesn't fatally damage the upper stage—which is unlikely—its single rocket engine will fire at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET to send the Tesla into what's called a Hohmann transfer orbit. True to Bowie, the car would be left floating in a most peculiar way, tracing an elliptical orbit around the sun that cyclically intersects with the paths of Earth and Mars.
SpaceX says that the Roadster could stably float out there for millions of years. And for a short while, at least, earthlings will get to ride along, thanks to three cameras mounted on the Roadster.
Watch live video of the Tesla Roadster in space.
Race for Reusability
As National Geographic reported on Monday, the Falcon Heavy is poised to serve as a potent symbol for private enterprise's rush into space—which SpaceX has shaken up by emphasising reusability.
Most rockets are designed with multiple parts, or stages, that help get the main compartment carrying the payload—the satellites and crew capsules—into space. The stages usually break away and fall back to Earth when they are spent. In many cases, those stages cannot be safely reused.
Here's how the SpaceX Falcon Heavy stacks up against some of the other heavy-lift launch vehicles that have successfully carried cargo and, in some cases, crew into orbit.
SOURCE: NASA, SPACEX
But since 2008, SpaceX has set a number of spaceflight firsts with its Falcon 9 rocket, including successfully recovering and reusing some of its rocket stages, which helps bring down the costs of space travel. SpaceX's competitors charge more than three times the price of SpaceX for launching payloads half as massive as those possible with the Falcon Heavy. (Read more about what the SpaceX success means.)
“It's been a total shot across the bow,” said John Logsdon, a space-policy expert at George Washington University, in an interview on Sunday.
Now that Falcon Heavy seems to work, SpaceX will likely move ahead with its existing manifest, which includes the Saudi satellite Arabsat 6a and the U.S. Air Force's STP-2, a variety pack of satellites that includes a hyper-accurate atomic clock designed for deep space and a network of satellites that will monitor Earth's atmosphere.
“If we're successful in this, it is game over,” said Musk in a press briefing on Monday. “It'd be like ... if one aircraft company had reusable aircraft and all the other aircraft companies were single-use, you parachuted out at your destination, and your plane randomly crashed somewhere.”
In some ways, though, the Falcon Heavy is an odd fit for the current rocketry market. SpaceX has effectively undercut the satellite market for Falcon Heavy by constantly upgrading its current workhorse rocket, the Falcon 9, and squeezing more performance out of it.
It's also unlikely that Falcon Heavy will launch humans off of Earth; Musk says that the Falcon Heavy won't go through the arduous certification process that crew-carrying rockets must endure. Instead, SpaceX will leapfrog straight to its Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, a gargantuan spaceship and 31-engine booster that would fulfill Musk's vision of interplanetary humans.
That said, it might be a while before the BFR takes to the skies. SpaceX is aiming to land BFR cargo missions on Mars by 2022, though Musk himself admits that this hyper-aggressive timeline is “aspirational.” Consider, too, that the Falcon Heavy itself was beset by years of redesigns and delays.
In the meantime, it's possible that the Falcon Heavy will serve a greater role in scientific launches, sending smallish instruments to elsewhere in the solar system with astounding speed. As the Trump administration's National Space Council grapples with the future of human space exploration, it's also possible that Falcon Heavy will feature prominently in NASA's plans to return humans to the moon—or send them even farther.
“If I were a missions designer, as I was way back when, and I got the Falcon Heavy in my toolkit, I'd immediately start running launch scenarios—how much tonnage can I get in orbit around the moon?” says G. Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University aeronautics expert and former head of the NASA Ames Research Center. “That would immediately become part of your planning.”
But the path forward for Falcon Heavy is hardly smooth. To land high-priority, must-work launches, any rocket worth its salt must be demonstrated as reliable. A single launch shows that there are no fatal design flaws, but more launches are needed to prove the vehicle's long-term viability.
“It doesn't matter how much money you save if you lose your payload, because the government doesn't insure it—it can't insure it,” says Casey Dreier, the space policy director of the Planetary Society. “Reliability is going to be the key factor.”
What's more, SpaceX is hardly alone. As The Verge's Loren Grush noted in May, SpaceX and its competitors are barrelling toward developing ever-more capable rockets, some of which may overlap with NASA's in-progress Space Launch System megarocket.
No matter which rocket wins hearts and contracts, Musk and others in the space community remain resolute that these kinds of advances in spaceflight represent big ideas that can fundamentally change the human experience.
“Why are we doing this? It's to do two things: It’s to advance human presence in any form beyond Earth [and] being able to send spacecraft, telescopes, people further out beyond low-Earth orbit,” says Dreier. “We're building a capability to challenge ourselves to explore and understand the cosmos, which is actually a really beautiful thing that we do as a species.”
Lead Image: The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 6. PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM WATSON, AFP, GETTY IMAGES