KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – The day before Falcon Heavy’s successful test flight from Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sounded like a kid on Christmas morning, saying that for the first time he wasn’t feeling stressed as he normally does before an important launch.
He promised an “exciting” launch, and the billionaire’s instincts were right.
At 3:45 p.m. Falcon Heavy fired up all 27 Merlin engines on its three boosters and rumbled up, lifting off from the same pad where astronauts launched to the moon almost 50 years ago.
The last launch with more than Falcon Heavy’s 5 million pounds of thrust was the space shuttle in 2011, meaning this launch was a big deal on the Space Coast.
More than 100,000 people came out to watch the 20 story-tall rocket ascend into the clear blue sky over the Atlantic Ocean.
The rocket reached Musk’s first goal of not blowing up the launch pad, which he estimated would take eight to 10 months to restore if the rocket blew up.
“I would consider it a win if it clears the pad,” Musk said on a call with reporters Monday, adding that it would “be a real pain in the neck” to repair the historic moon launch pad.
The Falcon Heavy launch could be felt around the Space Coast, as car alarms went off near the Space Center.
About eight minutes after launch, two of the previously flown cores landed back at Cape Canaveral sending quadruple sonic booms throughout the area.
Musk said the center booster of the Falcon Heavy slammed into the Atlantic at 300 mph, missing the floating landing platform.
The next goal: First and second stage separation. Then, the sports car test payload has to survive the Van Allen radiation belts, which NASA scientists say-contains “a nearly impenetrable barrier that prevents the fastest, most energetic electrons from reaching Earth.”
For a company that achieved last year what some said could not be done -- launching, landing and relaunching its Falcon 9 rockets -- the Falcon Heavy maiden launch could be a precursor for what’s to come in 2018 on the Space Coast.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) called the launch "a spectacular demonstration of the comeback of Florida’s Space Coast and of the U.S. commercial launch sector, which is succeeding in a big way.”
Starman cruising in space
The Tesla driver, a dummy wearing a SpaceX black and white space suit, complete with helmet, is destined for a wide Mars orbit, where it could remain for millions, even billions, of years, according to the SpaceX founder.
Three cameras mounted onto the cherry-red roadster provided some exciting views.
In another hint, from the company’s best hype man, Musk said Monday in a call with journalists that there is an Easter Egg hidden near the car’s radio, which was playing "Space Oddity" at launch time.
It turned out the Easter egg was a reference to "The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy." A message on the Tesla radio read, "Don't Panic," the signature catch phrase of the pop culture classic.
SpaceX continued to stream the views online of Starman's view of Earth inside the roadster.
The car will be speeding at about 25,000 mph when it reaches the outer edge of Mars orbit, more than 250 million miles from Earth.
Musk said because of how close the car will come to Mars, there is a small chance it could crash into the red planet.
What could Falcon Heavy do?
If Falcon Heavy had a successful launch, the next time the rocket blasts off it will be carrying a real payload.
SpaceX has five Falcon Heavy launches on the company manifest. One was the test flight and the four others are contracted by the U.S. Air Force and satellite manufacturers.
It’s not in SpaceX’s plans to use its new rocket to shuttle astronauts into space using the Dragon spacecraft, although it could. Instead, the company will focus on the “Big F--ing Rocket,” or BFR. The system includes a spacecraft and a booster, known as the BRB, “because it will be right back” about 10 minutes after launch, Musk said.
But Musk said Falcon will be a game-changer with heavy lift rockets. With more power than any other rocket currently launching, SpaceX could add an additional two boosters to the first-stage, essentially making it as powerful as any customer asks for, Musk said.
"It would be 'game over' for all other heavy-lift vehicles,” he said.
Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are both developing rockets with heavy-lift capabilities that are set to debut no earlier than 2020. Blue Origin’s reusable rocket New Glenn will be built just outside Kennedy Space Center in its new 250,000-foot facility.
Falcon Heavy has more than enough power and payload space to carry missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.