SpaceX makes history in Florida

By on 7 February, 2018

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket as it lifts off from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida.

SpaceX has made history with the successful launch of Falcon Heavy, its reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle and the most powerful operational rocket in the world.

The hotly-anticipated launch makes Falcon Heavy the most capable launch vehicle currently in service, harnessing twice the lift-off thrust and offering over twice the payload capacity of its nearest competitor, Delta IV Heavy.

Falcon Heavy is intended for interplanetary exploration missions and launch duties of the most massive satellites, such as U.S. military missions. A milestone for commercial ‘new space’, SpaceX’s new vehicle can offer heavy deep-space missions at an estimated $US90 million per launch, versus around $US435 million for United Space Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy missions.  SpaceX founder Elon Musk attributes this saving to the firm’s use of reusable first-stage boosters.

“If we are successful, it’s game over for other operators of heavy-lift rockets,” Musk told a conference call of reporters.

“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 spectacular, fiery launch took place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:45pm EST, February 6, and was attended by Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. Liftoff was watched by millions globally — inspiring awed, congratulatory responses.

Beyond the physical drama of a launch of this scale, SpaceX founder Elon Musk applied a few historic, signature flourishes to the test launch mission that captivated spectators. Falcon Heavy’s architecture is developed from the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, whose first stage booster returned to earth to historically land on a drone ship in 2016. Falcon Heavy employs three Falcon 9 cores for a total of 27 rocket engines, with SpaceX landing two cores successfully on launch pads close to the launch site once the first stage was complete.

The third core, intended to be landed on a drone ship in the Pacific ocean, was not so fortunate. Musk detailed for the booster’s fate in a conference call with reporters following the launch, describing that it needed three boosters to light in order to slow its trajectory and aim successfully for its landing target. Only one engine engaged, causing the rocket core to miss the drone ship by around 90 metres, slamming into the ocean at around 480 kilometres per hour and damaging the drone ship, covering the deck in debris.

In a final, spectacular touch, a Tesla Roadster, Elon Musk’s personal vehicle, was the payload for the mission — which is now in orbit and on its way to Mars.

Piloting the cherry-red Tesla Roadster is Starman, a spacesuit-clad mannequin, blasting ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie on its radio, with a copy of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glovebox, and displaying ‘Don’t Panic’ on the Tesla’s digital dashboard. You can watch a livestream of Starman’s journey below.

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