CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX’s triple-barreled Falcon Heavy rocket rose into space today for the first time on a pillar of flame and clouds of exhaust, blending the serious and silly sides of spaceflight. And to top it all off, two of those three rocket barrels landed back on Earth intact after the launch.
More than 2 million people watched SpaceX’s live video stream, which showed the launch and the landings as well as hundreds of employees cheering at the company’s headquarters in California.
Liftoff from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Apollo moon rockets and space shuttles once began their trips into space, came at 3:45 p.m. ET (12:45 p.m. PT). The launch occurred more than two hours later than originally planned, due to upper-level winds that had to die down before the go-ahead was given.
The test launch marked a serious step forward for SpaceX, which can now lay claim to having the world’s most powerful operational rocket. But its payload was as silly as it gets: a red Tesla Roadster sports car, owned by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (who also happens to be Tesla’s CEO).
The Roadster, with a spacesuit-clad “Starman” mannequin in the front seat, was packed inside the Falcon Heavy’s nose cone because Musk didn’t want to risk putting a valuable spacecraft on a test flight that could have gone horribly awry.
David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” provided the soundtrack as the car and Starman were exposed to the vacuum of space. “DON’T PANIC,” the classic advice from humorist Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” was displayed on the Roadster’s dash screen.
The car is heading for a deep-space orbit looping out beyond the orbit of Mars. “We estimate it’ll be in that orbit for several hundred million years, maybe in excess of a billion years,” Musk said.
At least two other items of note were placed on board as payloads: a commemorative plaque that bore the signatures of 6,000 SpaceX employees, and a “data crystal” containing a digitized library that includes Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.
This first Falcon Heavy was the result of years of development work, and combines three first-stage rocket cores for SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. Two of the tall, cylindrical cores were used in previous launches and refurbished for today’s test. The center core was previously unflown.
The three first-stage cores bristled with 27 of SpaceX’s Merlin rocket engines, providing 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. They powered the world’s most energetic rocket launch since 2011, when Atlantis blasted off on the space shuttle fleet’s last mission with nearly 7 million pounds of thrust.
Minutes after liftoff, all three of the Falcon Heavy’s cores separated and headed back to Earth for recovery — two by land and one by sea. The two side cores landed successfully at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 and Landing Zone 2, not far from the launch site, heralding their arrival with a pair of sonic booms.
A drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You” was on hand in the Atlantic to serve as a floating landing pad for the center core. Webcam videos showed the rocket core making a blazing descent, but it missed landing on the ship.
“The information I received is that we hit the water at about 300 miles an hour … and about 100 meters away from the ship,” Musk said during a post-launch news conference. “Which was enough to take out two thrusters [on the drone ship] and shower the deck with shrapnel.”
Musk said the center core wasn’t able to summon enough power for a controlled landing because it ran out of the triethylborane fuel needed to restart its engines.
Meanwhile, the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage executed two firings of its single Merlin engine, putting it on course to coast for five hours through the intense radiation of Earth’s Van Allen belts. At the end of that perilous phase of the flight, it fired its engine for a third time to send the Roadster and its dummy driver to deep space at a speed of nearly 25,000 mph (11 km/sec).
Eventually, SpaceX plans to use the Falcon Heavy to put large satellites, or combinations of satellites, into Earth orbits ranging as high as 22,000 miles in altitude. It could also take on missions to the moon or Mars — although Musk says that an even more powerful launch vehicle currently under development, nicknamed the BFR or “Big Falcon Rocket,” would probably be more suitable for interplanetary trips once it’s ready to go.
Here’s the archived stream from the test launch:
This report was most recently updated at 9:34 p.m. PT Feb. 6.