SpaceX does it for the first time again: Falcon Heavy sends a Tesla to deep space
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — It isn’t often a test flight lifts off almost flawlessly—what space people quietly call “nominal.” Yet, SpaceX made history again on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, after successfully launching its super heavy-lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, for the very first time.
The launcher, which is described as being the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two by the NewSpace firm, placed a unique payload into space—SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s midnight cherry red Tesla Roadster with the “Starman” mannequin outfitted in a qualification model of the company’s spacesuit design. The car was bound for an Earth-Mars heliocentric orbit, but appears to have overshot this and is headed toward our solar system’s asteroid belt. Rather than lofting mass simulators on a risky maiden flight, the company opted for the “silliest” thing they could imagine – Musk’s car.
In addition to achieving a successful first flight for the rocket, the company also managed to land two of the three boosters back on Earth at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 – raising the bar for “normal operations” in space.
“Everything you could want for a test flight”
Despite sunny skies and few clouds, the launch was delayed due to upper-level wind shear. The liftoff time was moved several times from 1:30 p.m. EST (18:30 GMT) to 2:20 p.m., then 2:50 p.m., 3:05 p.m., and 3:15 p.m., before finally settling on a 3:45 p.m. liftoff.
Seconds after clearing the tower, the Falcon Heavy began a pitch-and-roll maneuver. On 27 bright yellow-white flames produced by the equivalent number of Merlin 1D engines, the vehicle began to arc over the Atlantic Ocean into a clear and sunny sky. The vehicle pressed through Mach 1 about 1 minute, 7 seconds after having lifted off and passed maximum dynamic pressure at about 1 minute, 23 seconds into the flight.
The two strap-on “flight proven” Falcon 9-based side cores reached their main engine cutoff point at 2 minutes, 27 seconds into the flight before they were jettisoned. Each began a series of controlled burns that placed them on the correct trajectory to touch down at Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) and the newly completed LZ-2.
In what had to be one of the more unusual sights seen at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the area saw two boosters return to land in formation some eight minutes after liftoff, each centered on its own landing pad.
Meanwhile, up in the skies, the center core burned for another 35 seconds after the side cores left before jettisoning and beginning its controlled reentry toward SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You. At a post-launch press conference Musk said the center core’s three-engine landing burn did not go as planned. Only the center engine ignited, meaning the stage did not slow down fast enough and slammed into the Ocean at around 300 mph (480 kph).
With the center core jettisoned just over three minutes into the flight, that left the single vacuum-rated Merlin engine on the upper stage to power the Tesla Roadster onto its interplanetary voyage. The upper-stage engine burned for about 8.5 minutes before entering a 20-minute coast phase. A 30-second upper-stage burn was planned to take place approximately 28 minutes, 22 seconds into the flight, which raised the high point of the Roadster’s orbit to about 4,350 miles (7,000 kilometers).
A third burn some six hours after liftoff placed the vehicle on a Sun-centric orbit that should cycle between the orbits of Earth and Mars. The car’s distance from the Sun means it will maintain its orbit (barring any other interference) for a “billion years” before decaying, according to Musk.
When the payload fairing (nosecone) was jettisoned almost four minutes into the rocket’s ascent, the Tesla displayed the words “DON’T PANIC” in large letters on the dashboard computer, an homage to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Meanwhile, the onboard cameras showed the “Starman” in the driver’s seat flying over Earth as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” played in the background.
The Roadster was more of gimmick dummy payload, weighing in at a mere 2,900 pounds (1,300 kilograms). However, once in service, Falcon Heavy should be capable of lofting payloads as heavy as 119,000 pounds (54,000 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit (LEO), giving it capabilities that nearly double that of the closest commercial competitor, Delta IV Heavy, which is described as being able to lift 62,545 pounds (28,370 kilograms) to LEO.
Live views of Starman in his Tesla Roadster. The onboard batteries powering the cameras are expected to be drained some 12 hours after launch. Video courtesy of SpaceX
Reactions from across industry
While SpaceX employees cheered over the live feed from Hawthorne, California, John Insprucker, SpaceX’s principal integration engineer, said the mission provided “…everything you could want for a test flight.”
SpaceX’s own news feed noted that: “Falcon Heavy draws upon the proven heritage and reliability of Falcon 9. Its first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit. Falcon Heavy was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.”
“It’s a beautiful day for a rocket launch from my favorite launchpad.”
Amazon.com founder and SpaceX rival CEO of Blue Origin Jeff Bezos wished the flight well:
Best of luck
@SpaceX with the Falcon Heavy launch tomorrow – hoping for a beautiful, nominal flight!
Andrew Gasser, President of the Tea Party in Space, told Spaceflight Insider:
“This is a game changer that proves the limited government, public-private partnership using the American free market system really works. February 6th, 2018 is a day where everyone who is in the space industry will remember where they were when they witnessed Falcon Heavy opening up the infinite economy to all of us.”
Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society said:
“Today SpaceX achieved a spectacular and historic success. Seven years ago, the Augustine commission said that NASA’s Moon program had to be cancelled because the development of the necessary heavy lift booster would take 12 years and 36 billion dollars. SpaceX has now done that, on its own dime, in half the time and a twentieth of the cost. And not only that, but the launch vehicle is three quarters reusable. This is a revolution. The naysayers have been completely refuted. The Moon is now within reach. Mars is now within reach. The moment is at hand to open the space frontier. America should seize the time.”
Having demonstrated its ability to fly on its first mission, the next question could be: who will Falcon Heavy’s customers be in the marketplace? While Musk has talked in depth about making humanity a multi-planet species, are there any actual customers for the rocket today?
Presumably the Department of Defense and some of the larger satellite producers like Intelsat might have use for very large launchers, and with the Space Launch System still nearly two and a half years away from its first launch, scientists looking to send payloads to the outer solar system might now have a quicker option.
Of course Musk has said he wants to replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy with his Interplanetary Transport System (also called the “BFR”). However, that might be getting a little ahead of the game, given the size of the BFR. SpaceX also needs to do further testing on the Raptor engine, which should be able to produce 683,433 pounds (3,040 kilonewtons) of thrust with a single engine.
Video courtesy of SpaceX
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.