SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Launch Was a Joyful Success
There’s a car in space right now.
Patience was in short supply during the leg-jiggling, finger-tapping, tension-filled hours before the launch of the Falcon Heavy, which would, if successful, become the most powerful operational rocket on the planet. From thousands of miles away viewers obsessively checked Twitter for live updates from the hundreds of reporters and thousands of visitors who showed up to witness history.
The knotted insides of space enthusiasts clenched tighter as the launch slipped from 1:30 to 2:20, to 2:50, then came 3:15. Fast-moving winds had stirred the blue skies and the upper atmosphere above the rocket sitting on launchpad 39A. The countdown clock stopped, along with the hearts of people who had been waiting seven years for this moment—when Elon Musk introduced the idea of the Falcon Heavy to the world in 2011.
This afternoon, winds in the upper atmosphere were blowing at speeds 20 percent higher than the acceptable level for rockets of this kind to take off safely. Anxiety levels rose as time dribbled out of the 2.5 hour launch window. Then, the countdown clock restarted and a new launch time was set for 3:45.
They started fueling up, adding purified kerosene known as RP-1 to the rocket. Spirits and hopes rose once again as the engineers poured liquid oxygen into the Falcon Heavy, a vote of confidence that the rocket would launch today.
Hundreds of thousands of people tuned into the live webcast long before it went live, patiently awaiting the first glimpse of the Falcon Heavy. In the end, 2.3 million people tuned in to watch the big event.
Then, there it was, surrounded by a cloud of vented oxygen. The weather held. No technical errors arose. It was five minutes to launch, then 30 seconds, then, 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1…flame and fire roared along with the crowd, and the most powerful rocket in operation today was on its way up, burning its path in the sky.
The scene was breathtaking, but could the rocket stick the landing? As the Falcon Heavy approached the darkness at the edge of our atmosphere, cheers arose once again as two Falcon cores on the sides broke cleanly away from the center core, pivoting back towards two landing pads on Cape Canaveral. Shortly afterwards, the last segment of the first stage separated, and headed back towards a drone ship. Landing the rockets carefully, instead of smashing them into the ocean makes it more likely that they can be reused on another flight.
The two side cores were already veterans at landing, having been used in previous missions. They landed in unison, a dramatic flourish to cap off a successful launch. It was, according to the people gathered around computers at Popular Science“strangely beautiful”, and “like watching synchronized swimmers, but rockets.” In the words of the jubilant SpaceX flight engineer, “The Falcons have landed.”
The remaining Falcon, the center core, headed towards a drone ship just as the video feed of the landing cut off during the descent. As of this writing, the fate of the center core is still unknown.
Now, a cherry-red Tesla roadster, ‘driven’ by a mannequin clad in a SpaceX branded spacesuit is on its way towards Mars orbit, where it will orbit the sun for about a billion years, occasionally getting close to the Red Planet, but likely—hopefully—not close enough to graze its surface.
Starman won’t be totally alone for that time. A tiny model of both the car and Starman will go with him, along with a plaque bearing the names of 6,000 SpaceX employees, and a disc specially designed to hold information even in the hostile environment in space. The data includes specifics on human knowledge, including famed science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.
Currently, SpaceX has a live stream of Starman where you can watch as he orbits Earth:
This was only a test run of the rocket, hence the publicity-seeking payload. But now, an heir to the Saturn V rocket, which carried people to the Moon, exists. The Falcon Heavy isn’t quite as powerful as the Saturn V, but it is operational. NASA discontinued the Saturn V in the 1970s. Since then, the world has gone without a heavy lift rocket, until now. The Falcon Heavy will likely ferry satellites to space, like its smaller Falcon 9 siblings, but it has the potential to go further, pushing us—or at least our proxies—towards the Moon, or Mars, or farther. There is no doubt that it is a heavyweight, but its reign might be short. Other rockets, including SpaceX’s own BFR system, a fully reusable two-part rocket and spaceship system, might soon displace it at the top, and ultimately that might be the one that lands on Mars with earthlings inside it.
But that’s all in the future. And for now, its still an uncertain future. There will be schedule changes, budget changes, and payload changes, and it’s still unclear as to when humans will actually head to the Mars, or back to the moon. More discussions and debates need to be had, and there’s still much more humans need to accomplish in space. This was an exhilarating, silly, and perhaps a bit ostentatious display of what humans can achieve. But it does show how much more we have left to do: There are scientific missions to launch, human outposts to establish, and a whole universe of worlds to explore.
For now, we’re in a spot where we can take a deep breath, watch an empty space suit in a used sports car circling the Earth, and get ready for what comes next.
©2018 Popular Science. Displayed with permission.
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