CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX’s big new rocket blasted off Tuesday on its first test flight, carrying a red sports car aiming for an endless road trip past Mars.
The Falcon Heavy rose from the same launch pad used by NASA nearly 50 years ago to send men to the moon. With liftoff, the Heavy became the most powerful rocket in use today, doubling the liftoff punch of its closest competitor.
The three boosters and 27 engines roared to life at Kennedy Space Center, as thousands watched from surrounding beaches, bridges and roads. At SpaceX Mission Control in Southern California, employees screamed, whistled and raised pumped fists into the air as the launch commentators called off each milestone.
Two of the boosters – both recycled from previous launches – returned minutes later for simultaneous, side-by-side touchdowns on land at Cape Canaveral. Sonic booms rumbled across the region with the vertical landings. The third, brand new booster slammed into the Atlantic at 300 mph, missing the floating landing platform. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said it hit the water with such force that shrapnel flew onto the droneship’s deck and took out two engines.
Musk owns the rocketing Tesla Roadster, which is shooting for a solar orbit that will reach all the way to Mars. As head of electric carmaker Tesla, he combined his passions to add a dramatic flair to the Heavy’s inaugural flight.
Cameras mounted on the car fed video of the convertible floating high above the ocean with its driver, a space-suited dummy, named “Starman” after the Davie Bowie song.
The Falcon Heavy is a combination of three Falcon 9s, the rocket that the company uses to ship supplies to the International Space Station and lift satellites. SpaceX is reusing first-stage boosters to save on launch costs. Most other rocket makers discard their spent boosters in the ocean.
The Heavy is intended for massive satellites, such as those used by the U.S. military and major-league communication companies. Even before the successful test flight, customers were signed up.
“It was awesome, like a science fiction movie coming to reality,” said former NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Apollo professor of astronautics.
The Heavy already is rattling the launch market. Its sticker price is $90 million, less than one-tenth the estimated cost of NASA’s Space Launch System megarocket in development for moon and Mars expeditions.