On 6 February, SpaceX sent a Tesla Roadster convertible into space, atop the first Falcon Heavy rocket, with the car ultimately due to make its way to Mars’ distant orbit.
In scenes straight out of a Hollywood film, Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s new rocket, performed its test flight on Tuesday 6 February, firing red Tesla into space. It was an advertising masterstroke on the part of Tesla and SpaceX owner Elon Musk. Streamed live on YouTube, the launch showed that the rocket is ready to go to market.
A near-perfect launch
The Falcon Heavy launch was an all-round success: the rocket’s lift-off, the landing of its two lateral booster rockets – in perfect synchronisation at around 100 metres from each other – and the launch itself all went without a hitch, under the watchful eyes of the cameras.
The only setback came when the rocket’s core booster, which should have landed on a SpaceX’s drone ship, ended up in the Atlantic Ocean. The reason for that was that two of its three engines did not fire during the final landing burn.
The culmination of a five-year project
Following the launch, online viewers watched footage laced with sci-fi references, with a dummy astronaut called Starman appearing at the wheel of the car, the dashboard of which had a “Don’t Panic” sticker affixed to it – a nod to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the meantime, David Bowie’s Space Oddity played in the background.
These images mark the end of a project first announced in 2013, with further statements of intent being made in 2014 and 2017. At a press conference last July Musk said: “Developing Falcon Heavy has been way, way more difficult than expected. At first, it sounds really easy: Just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be? But then everything changes. All the loads change, aerodynamics totally change, you’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics.” The project has proved so testing in fact that it has almost been abandoned three times.
A big step for space exploration
The most powerful rocket in the world and the first ever to be launched by a private company, Falcon Heavy has broken new ground in both a technological and commercial sense. Billionaire Musk has officially robbed the space agencies of their space monopoly.
“He’s really made an impact with this launch and he’s turned this historically niche market on its head,” said Ludovic Janvy, the Swiss head of Altran Group’s industrial division. Janvy believes that SpaceX owes its success to disruptive methods such as the recovery of the rocket’s boosters and the recruitment of aerospace experts.
While Starman continues on his way to Mars, Falcon Heavy is preparing to launch a Saudi telecommunications satellite into orbit and then transport equipment for the US Air Force. No doubt other customers, including NASA perhaps, will also express an interest in using the rocket, the launch of which generates only “moderate” costs of $90m for a 64-tonne payload.
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