A red sports car belonging to billionaire space entrepreneur Elon Musk is on its way to the orbit of Mars, following the firing of a booster rocket Tuesday evening.
Earlier in the day, SpaceX's jumbo Falcon Heavy rocket launched successfully, lifting off from the Florida launchpad that once sent astronauts to the moon. The 230-foot rocket, made of three strapped-together Falcon 9 boosters, soared over the light clouds above NASA's Kennedy Space Center at 3:45 p.m. ET, its launch initially delayed two hours by high-altitude winds.
The test flight — SpaceX honcho Musk had set expectations of success at 50/50 earlier — aimed to set a red Tesla Roadster sports car, equipped with an astronaut-suited dummy nicknamed "Starman" in the driver's seat, on a trajectory to the orbit of Mars.
"Everything seems to have gone as well as we hoped," Musk told reporters, excepting the return landing of one of the rocket's core engines. "Crazy things can come true."
The most powerful rocket now in operation, the $90 million Falcon Heavy packs the equivalent of 4 million pounds of TNT in power. On Monday, Musk had said if the first Falcon Heavy launch "clears the pad," survived supersonic flight, and made it through the moment of maximum stress on the rocket in the first 100 seconds after liftoff, "those would be big wins."
It easily delivered on all three.
"All of us in this business know the effort it takes to get to a first
flight of any new vehicle and recognize the tremendous accomplishment we
witnessed today," NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. The space agency is working on its own heavy lift rocket, the $23 billion Space Launch System, which recently delayed its first launch until 2019.
"The launch of Falcon Heavy signals a new era in super-heavy lift launch vehicles," said Phil Larson of the University of Colorado, who has worked for both SpaceX and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Falcon Heavy’s success, and the other commercial rockets that will follow, has major implications for the growth of the space industry here in the United States."
The initial Falcon Heavy launch put the sports car into Earth's orbit for six hours, where it delivered views of the globe. At 9:30 p.m. ET, the re-firing of a booster rocket sent the car on its way to Mars' orbit, passing over SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, just south of Los Angeles.
That Musk was successful in sending a car into Mars' orbit — 142 million miles away from the sun — underscores the power of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which is now the most powerful launch vehicle on Earth. The burn exceed expectations, according to Musk, sending the car as far as the asteroid belt more than 200 million miles from the sun.
Before heading to the orbit of Mars, the sports car carried by the Falcon Heavy atop its second-stage rocket had to pass repeatedly through the two radiation belts surrounding Earth, some 620 miles and 37,000 miles high. SpaceX had to demonstrate this coasting time to the US Air Force, which needs the capability to launch some of its largest satellites into geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above Earth.
Batteries aboard the car lasted for 12 hours, providing striking views of the Tesla Roadster orbiting over the Earth broadcast live by SpaceX. "It looks so ridiculous and impossible. You can tell it's real because it looks so fake," Musk said after the launch. He suggested that if aliens discover the car they might wonder, "if we worshiped the car."
"Silly, fun things are important," he added, when asked why he shot a car into space.
"Musk is a showman; the car certainly gives people something to talk about," space historian Roger Launius of Launius Historical Services in Washington, DC, told BuzzFeed News. "He's important, the latest in a long line of entrepreneurs who make space history."
The electronics on board the booster rocket weathered hours of exposure to the radiation of the Van Allen belts circling the Earth before firing.
"It’s just literally a normal car in space" Musk said. "Maybe aliens will find it some day."
The Roadster will cycle between the orbit of Earth and Mars for hundreds of millions of years, traveling 24,600 miles per hour, according to Musk. The car carries three cameras and a digital library holding Isaac Asimov's classic science fiction series Foundation, along with a dashboard reminder "Don't Panic," a nod to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy science fiction parody.
"There is a tiny, tiny chance it will hit Mars," Musk said Monday. "Extremely tiny. I wouldn't hold your breath."
One of the challenges of the test flight was the landing of all three first-stage Falcon 9 rocket cores. The side rockets aimed for landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which they nailed simultaneously. The longer-firing central core aimed for a landing pad on an unmanned barge 300 miles off the Florida coast, but didn't make it, landing in the ocean at 300 mph due to insufficient braking fuel. The splash sprayed shrapnel all over the barge and took out two of its engines, according to Musk. "Hopefully we will get the footage" from its cameras, he added.
Musk had suggested on Monday that a successful launch of the Falcon Heavy would mean "game over" for more expensive competitors, such as the Atlas V and the Ariane V rockets, which don't rely on reusable rockets to launch satellites into geostationary orbit.
George Washington University space economist Henry Hertzfeld disagreed, however. "He has overstated the case. There are many issues and considerations in choosing a launch vehicle — not just price," he told BuzzFeed News, noting that reliability and experience working with a contractor are also factors.
The Falcon Heavy was developed at costs of more than half a billion dollars, according to Musk, all of it internal corporate money. SpaceX is already designing a bigger BFR rocket to take people to Mars, which Musk estimated, with customary optimism, may launch within four years.
The story has been updated with comments from Phil Larson and Henry Hertzfeld.