SpaceX's most powerful rocket makes thunderous debut

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Pushed into the sky by the thundering blast of 27 engines, SpaceX’s strongest rocket yet blasted off from Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday before sending its boosters hurtling back to Earth for an intricate seaside double-landing.  

The apparently successful test launch confirmed the Falcon Heavy as the world’s most powerful heavy-lift vehicle and marked another historic first for SpaceX.  

"Crazy things can come true. I didn't really think this would work," company founder and CEO Elon Musk smiled after the launch. "I have confidence in the SpaceX team. I think we can really do this a lot."

The 230-foot-tall triple-core rocket – the most capable since the moon shots of the 1960s – lifted off from the very same Florida launch pad where NASA’s Apollo astronauts began their journeys to the moon.  But unlike those famed Saturn V rockets, the Falcon Heavy was developed privately with the intention of being reused.

A few minutes after the fiery liftoff, six sonic booms cracked across Cape Canaveral as two of the Falcon Heavy’s booster rockets – both of which have previously launched payloads into space individually – made a dramatic simultaneous return to land.  SpaceX has made booster recycling nearly routine as part of its quest to lower launch prices, but this was the first time that two boosters landed together in one launch.

The rocket’s main first stage was later expected to land on a barge out at sea, the company said, but failed when it ran out of fuel to re-ignite its landing engines.

Before the flight, Musk said he felt the mission had only a 2-out-of-3 chance of success.  Despite those odds, he was apparently willing to risk his own car as a test payload.

Shrouded inside the rocket’s nose cone was Musk’s personal first-edition red roadster made by Tesla another company he owns.  The roadster is now on its way to a solar orbit stretching out to Mars; Musk promised it would be playing David Bowie along the way.

If that wasn’t imaginative enough, there was also a ‘passenger’ aboard.  A mannequin Musk dubbed ‘Starman’ was propped in the driver’s seat, clad in a SpaceX spacesuit like the one that astronauts will wear when the company begins ferrying crews to and from the space station, possibly as soon as the end of the year.

Video footage provided by SpaceX showed a few glimpses of the cherry red roadster in orbit, in striking contrast to the blue of the earth. Musk later tweeted a link to live video being fed back from the 'spacecraft.'

"It's a normal car. In space. I like the absurdity of that," Musk said.  "Normally for a new rocket, they'd launch a block of concrete or something.  That's so boring.  And the imagery of it is going to get people excited around the world. It's still tripping me out."

While the Starman stunt generated a lot of lighthearted Twitter conversation, Musk was serious about his company’s role in space.  He hopes his cheaper, more powerful rockets will lead to more regular flights, including manned missions to the moon and, eventually, Mars.

"It is going to be our focus after we're done with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy," he added. "Most of our engineering resources will be devoted to [Mars]."


POWERFUL: The Falcon Heavy is twice as capable as its next competitor, but it’s not the most powerful rocket in history. That title still belongs to the Saturn V, which launched from the same pad in the 1960s and 1970s.

ALL THOSE ENGINES: Twenty-seven engines firing on one first stage may seem like a lot, but it’s not unprecedented.  The Saturn V was powered by five strong engines, but its Soviet counterpart boasted 30. Of course, the N1 rocket, as it was known in the West, failed on four out of four launches – mostly  due to errors with the engines or the computers tasked with monitoring and controlling them – and the Soviets never made it to the moon.

BEST WISHES: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos tweeted a good-luck message to Musk in a rare display of sportsmanship. Bezos also owns Blue Origin, a space company designing rockets that take off and land much like SpaceX’s at a brand-new KSC factory, and the two billionaires often appear more competitive than friendly on Twitter.

MEANWHILE AT NASA: SpaceX has been leasing NASA’s launch pad 39A, but its sister pad remains unused since the end of the shuttle program. NASA is developing its own heavy-lift rocket for pad 39B that it plans to use to boost an Orion crew capsule around the moon some time in the next few years. An unmanned Orion capsule made its first test flight aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket in 2014.