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Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk meets the press at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, says that even he was surprised by how successful the first flight of his company’s Falcon Heavy rocket turned out to be, and that it boosted his confidence about building an even bigger rocket ship that could someday send settlers to Mars.

“It’s surreal to me,” Musk admitted tonight during a post-launch news conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which provided the base of operations for today’s test flight.

Musk said half-jokingly that he had visions of a catastrophic failure. “I had this image of a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road and a Tesla logo landing somewhere,” he told reporters. “But fortunately, that’s not what happened.”

Instead, SpaceX provided the first demonstration of what is now the world’s most powerful rocket in operation, and created a viral sensation by sending a Tesla Roadster sports car into a long, looping orbit that will go out beyond the orbit of Mars, with the driver’s seat occupied by a “Starman” mannequin wearing a standard-issue SpaceX spacesuit.

“It taught me, like, crazy things can come true,” Musk said.

On a more serious note, Musk was gratified by the performance of the Falcon Heavy’s triple-barreled booster, created by joining together a modified Falcon 9 rocket core with two previously used cores. The two flight-tested cores made synchronized landings after separating from the center core, and the center core narrowly missed executing an at-sea landing.

“I can imagine large numbers of those, just coming in and landing, taking off, landing, doing many flights per day,” he said. “I think it gives me a lot of faith for our next architecture, our interplanetary spaceship.”

That spaceship, known as the BFR (which could stand for “Big Falcon Rocket” or “Big F**king Rocket”), could start going into short-hop flight tests next year, Musk said. Those hops could take place at a space complex that NASA is building near Brownsville, Texas. “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” Musk said.

Within three or four years, the BFR spaceship could start making trips in low Earth orbit, and within a decade or so, it just might offer regular passenger service to Mars.

It sometimes sounded as if Musk was already shifting his focus from the Falcon Heavy to the BFR.

“Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload. It can launch more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world, so it’s kind of up to customers what they might want to launch,” he said. “It can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. … It can launch giant satellites, it can do anything you want. You could send people back to the moon if you did a bunch of launches of Falcon Heavy and did orbital refilling.”

He noted that putting two or three Falcon Heavy missions together would equal the capability of the Apollo era’s Saturn V rocket, which still holds the record for the most powerful rocket ever built.

“But I wouldn’t recommend doing that, because I think the new architecture, the BFR architecture, is the way to go,” he said.

The success of Falcon Heavy and the rise of the BFR could spark more innovation elsewhere in the space industry, Musk said.

“I think it’s going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say, ‘Hey, we can do bigger and better,'” he said. “Which is great. We want a new space race. Races are exciting.”

Here’s what Musk had to say on other topics:

  • He waxed rhapsodic about the Starman experiment: “It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think silly and fun things are important. … It’s still trippin’ me out.” One journalist asked Musk whether the BFR could open the way for missions as crazy and as awesome as the Starman in the Roadster. “No idea,” Musk answered. “Suggestions are welcome.”
  • Musk estimated that SpaceX has spent more than $500 million on development of the Falcon Heavy. “We tried to cancel the Falcon Heavy program three times at SpaceX, because it was like, ‘Man, this is way harder than we thought,” he said.
  • SpaceX is working on ways to recover the fairing, or nose cone, from its Falcon 9 rockets, which could save millions of dollars per launch. “My guess is, the next six months, we figure out fairing recovery,” Musk said. “We’ve got a special boat to catch the fairing…. It’s like a giant catcher’s mitt in boat form.” The technology might also be adapted for capturing SpaceX’s Dragon capsules. “If NASA wants us to, we could play ‘Catch the Dragon,'” Musk said.
  • SpaceX is “making great progress” on upgrading the Dragon to carry crew to and from the International Space Station. Now that Falcon Heavy has gotten off the ground, “it’s all hands on deck for Crew Dragon. and we’re aspiring to fly crew to orbit at the end of this year,” Musk said.
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