SpaceX just achieved one of the most important moments in its young history, pulling off a successful test flight of its new Falcon Heavy rocket, a critical part of the private space company’s long-term plan to go to Mars.
The launch, which took place at 3:45 p.m. Eastern from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, began the maiden flight of the world’s most powerful rocket by a factor of two, capable of hauling more than 140,000 pounds of cargo into space—twice as much in payload weight as the next biggest rocket—at a mere $90 million per launch.
SpaceX (and Tesla) CEO Elon Musk had been blunt that the chances of failure were pretty significant. So the only payload to go up this time carried only sentimental importance, not monetary value. Musk decided to stick a cherry-red Tesla Roadster onto the Falcon Heavy, complete with a dummy named “Starman,” dressed in one of the uniforms future astronauts will wear when the company starts launching humans into space. Fittingly, the car’s speakers are blasting David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”
The Roadster’s destination: an elliptic orbit around the sun where it will intersect with Mars’s orbit, allowing for a close flyby past the red planet. The car will stay in deep space for, well, possibly forever, cruising around at a very normal 40,000 kilometers per hour. “I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future,” Musk wrote on Twitter in December.
The Falcon Heavy is composed of 27 engines spread across three cores. The whole thing is ostensibly three of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets strapped together to make a single launch vehicle capable of taking bigger payloads farther out into space. And like the Falcon 9, each first-stage booster of the Falcon Heavy is designed to land back on Earth—a feat that makes space exploration a less pricey undertaking. After launch, SpaceX landed the Falcon Heavy’s side-boosters on solid ground at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, while the center core attempted a landing on the company’s Atlantic Ocean droneship (the company has yet to confirm whether the booster landed safely). That means the company has now successfully landed 23 (and maybe 24) rocket boosters to date.
Musk and his colleagues began SpaceX with the express goal of developing affordable spaceflight architecture that could one day be used to help sustain a human colonies on other planet—particularly Mars. The company is trying to pursue low-cost spaceflight through the use of reusable technologies, with the goal of someone basically being able to afford a trip to Mars for the cost of a standard home.
While the Falcon Heavy won’t be the rocket that starts taking people to Mars, it marks a necessary milestone toward engineering a rocket that can make the trip. The new rocket will let the company start conducting missions beyond Earth’s orbit—to the moon, Mars, and beyond. The fact that the company managed to land at least two of the boosters is a very encouraging sign it can continue to keep its costs down and entice satellite customers in the short term to continue contracting SpaceX for launches.
On the other hand, a failed mission, though not entirely surprising, would have been a pretty discouraging blow to SpaceX. The company already has a few customers lined up hoping to send payloads into space using the Falcon Heavy’s power, and none of them would have felt great about having their items be guinea pigs to test out the rocket’s viability.
Plus, we’re still waiting to hear the fate of the center booster. If it failed to land, it would underscore that SpaceX (which had a perfect landing record in 2017) is still far from immune to equipment failure. That’s not such a terrible thing when we’re talking about satellites (even ones costing billions of dollars), but it would add a dash of fright to SpaceX’s prospects of ferrying humans to and from space—something the company wants to achieve next year.
Was Tuesday’s success just beginner’s luck? The next Falcon Heavy mission will launch a Saudi Arabian communications satellite into orbit. The date for that mission is still undetermined, but it should happen within the next few months. If it goes well, SpaceX will be well on its way to establishing itself as perhaps the world’s top private spaceflight company.
Update, 7:47 p.m. Musk confirmed at a press conference that the center core failed to land on the droneship. Two of the rocket’s engines failed to ignite, causing it to crash into the water at around 300 miles per hour, and take out two of the droneship’s own engines in the process.