Spaceflight Insider

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.

Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

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.”

A view of Starman inside the Tesla Roaster with Earth falling away in the background. Photo Credit: SpaceX Webcast

A view of Starman inside the Tesla Roaster with Earth falling away in the background. Photo Credit: SpaceX Webcast

Buzz Aldrin, who served as the Lunar Module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission, which lifted off from Launch Complex 39A in 1969, sent his regards:

“It’s a beautiful day for a rocket launch from my favorite launchpad.” founder and SpaceX rival CEO of Blue Origin Jeff Bezos wished the flight well:

Best of luck with the Falcon Heavy launch tomorrow – hoping for a beautiful, nominal flight!

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, in response to a Twitter follower who asked, “Would you do another space flight with a SpaceX Rocket?” answered simply, “Yes.”

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.”

What’s next?

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?

In fact, there are. SpaceX currently has five customers on its launch manifest for Falcon Heavy, including Arabsat 6A, Inmarsat, the U.S. Air Force STP-2, and Viasat.

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.

Reader Comments

Don’t forget the side boosters were used before. There are quite a few used boosters in Spacex inventory. SpaceX can use F. Heavy to launch its own payloads at very low cost using used parts if buyers don’t exist for FH. Meaning spaceX could use them to build out its Satellite fleet or even to build a private space port in space complete with bed and breakfast. Visitors to such a facility could then fund Lunar and Martian orbital spaceports or even Lunar and/or martian surface mining camps and vacation or retirement homes. My aching joints like that idea.

Also interesting is the space suit and mannequin in the roadster. It may seem whimsical, some have described it as silly or ridiculous, to place a roadster on the Falcon Heavy but my suspicion is that below that suit there could be some serious sensors providing radiation information from deep space. I would imagine that having such a mannequin in an already built and paid for object designed to hold/secure a person is a nice way of saving on costs and engaging the public. If there are sensors for this purpose on board the data collected could help SpaceX redesign their suits and possibly also their ships to be more effective at protecting astronauts on deep space missions.

I’m grateful they were able get the payload aloft. I hope they do work out their issues with the central rocket. That one was reported to be harder to build, with possibility of slowing production of the Heavy down.
Reported else where there wasn’t enough fuel to land the rocket due to high winds. They need increase the reserves if their planning to return all three rockets. The size change may change their calculations and require further redesign.

The last thing I heard was that the engines didn’t infinite, at least not all of them. I think it was said that only 1 out of 3 started up so there was not enough power to reduce velocity and thus the high impact speed. It’s supposedly a substantial redesign for the core as you said so not surprising that there were issues. I expect they’ll solve these with additional landings and the data collected from this and future attempts.

A shortage of TEA-TEB ignition fluid on two of the landing engines apparently. It shouldn’t be difficult to resolve.

SpaceX should not jump the gun on stating that there are no plans for “human rating” the FH. Seems to me that a Moon mission could be undertaken using this vehicle in combination with the ISS, and at a far lower cost than using mission-dedicated new designs.

Well Elon said they’re pulling their development team off FH and onto BFR/BFS but I guess that could change with the right incentives.

I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, FH stretches the Falcon 9 design already and they shouldn’t get bogged down in years or decades of investment in a construct that has served its purpose. That’s something that has held back others in the past and I think SpaceX won’t want to go down the same path or at least that’s what I’m hoping. Getting the BFR (and maybe eventually the ITS original spec?) into operation would be a revolution in space flight, much more so than the FH. Personally, I see the FH as a practical demonstrator with great capabilities but shouldn’t end up being the goal. It’s main purpose seems to me to be proving that engine counts can scale up.

Elon unfortunately, sometimes underestimates development time for the new ventures to become reality. Falcon Heavy could become a highly useful research test bed for many of the concepts proposed for BFR: flight rating of the new methylox based Raptor engines, as an example. Build a new and larger second stage incorporating a vacuum-rated Raptor and get some actual flight time with it for certification. Since SpaceX will be doing the Military Certification for FH, they could also build a case for the vehicle being human rated.

Human rating spacecraft is a huge deal and mired in bureaucracy and additional safety measures that have already cost the Dragon it’s landing legs and by extension the preliminary Mars missions. Considering the difficulties with the FH design, I would imagine that rating it for human safety would be a massive task, one that’ll occupy an inordinate amount of resources and may result in scaling down goals. Getting a single stage to orbit spacecraft is more important even with potential delays, something NASA should have done decades ago with the X-33 or an equivalent. Better to wait a bit longer for the BFR, maybe 5 years so 2027, rather certifying/focusing on FH and waiting 10 or more additional years for the BFR. I’d hate to see it slip into the 30s. I also doubt that the Raptors would be a good fit for the FH, if forces/vibrations were already an issue before, I’d imagine this would be exacerbated by the power of those engines.

I agree that this is a bureaucracy-based issue. It as you stated, cost the Dragon 2 it’s ability to make land landings by elimination of the legs. If SpaceX is going to invest in military certification for this vehicle, could that effort no include man rating at the same time?

Clarissa MacDougall

Raptor based US requires a huge change to the current vehicle and more importantly impacts the GSE/TE systems significantly. Tough to make that work along side existing GSE to support standard MerlinVac US.

Better to leave existing launch vehicle and GSE in reliable condition for handling huge manifest and work in sandbox for next gen vehicle. The past few years have been painful trying to fly as you rapidly spin the vehicle, SpaceX would like to avoid this i’m sure.

I agree, now that the FH has completed it’s inaugural flight, the main focus for the Falcon9/FH architecture should be on refining reuse with Block 5 and flight cadence in order to provide capital for the BFR so that no matter what administration is driving the show, R&D will be resilient to interruptions and criticisms.

Red Dragon was a distraction and a detour for SpaceX. Sure it would have been nice to have a Dragon land on Mars but realistically NASA did SpaceX a favour by making the whole Dragon2 land landing difficult. It made them refocus on their original goal which is helping mankind become a spacefaring species. Red Dragon was never on the critical path. That’s BFR/S.
Brw I don’t think there’s actually much refinement left for F9 Block 5 but maybe a bit more for FH. Shouldn’t detract from the main game.

Long term that’s probably true now that the FH with it’s 27 engines has flown successfully but I still think it would have been useful to test retropropulsion and landing directly at Mars with a smaller vehicle like Red Dragon. Now they’ll have to throw a full on BFR spaceship at it.. If FH had a major pucker factor I bet that initial Mars landing with BFS will feature a whole new level of the above.

Yes Mars is renowned for pucker factor landings.

Disagree. There are many unanswered questions that strongly impact the BFR concept that Red Dragon could have answered. The Red Dragon could have/should have included a Moxie unit and a Sabatier reactor to validate the ISRU concepts inherent in the spacecraft return plans. How many eggs doe SpaceX want to put in their new basket for the first landing attempt? When considering that Dragon 2 has not yet flown, the possible life support systems haven’t yet been tested, much less validated. It’s a wiser path forward to limit the number of new variables and experiments per trial; that way the resulting data, should a failure occur, be significantly easier to deconvolute than otherwise.

Ok those are good arguments however as a counter, Dragon2 will be flying a fair while before BFS is launched. Also I’m not at all clear that SpaceX is working on ISRU among other things. I know that their stated aim is to transport lots of people to and possibly from Mars but how much of the actual Mars colony infrastructure they’re planning to provide is something I’ve not seen discussed.
Anyway if you have further info’ on those aspects, it’d be appreciated.

I think Elon Musk talked about some of this, at least as far as generating fuel at Mars. I’m going to guess that when it comes to plans for Mars colonization anything and everything is on the table, just maybe not immediately. The drive towards vertical integration in all his companies will probably lead to the formation of one giant entity that comprises every Mars relevant technology (Hyperloop and Tesla – transportation/energy generation, StarLink – Communication/InterplanetaryNet, AI – defenses/research/general services, Boring Company – Habitat manufacturing and so on), could eventually function independently. That’ll probably also include ISRU sectors down the line, maybe also asteroid mining. This seems to be the underlying trend.

We are looking forward to the future together with Elon Musk. As far as everyone remembers, this man has repeatedly made promises and fulfilled them, which was only his promise to the account of Model Tesla Cars. Now he has a plan for colonizing Mars. I am now 25 and I hope that I will live to this time, that even in old age, but my foot set foot on Mars. Looking at the tests he conducts with his missiles, I increasingly believe in this. Friends, soon we will say that flying to Mars is a reality!

Ideally interchange energizes will be accessible in short request for rocketry which are less hurtful. One major advantage however, not at all like past launchers which fell back to earth and sprinkled into the sea with part’s of rocket fuel all the more still locally available, in any event these arrive on recuperation stages (ocean or arrive) and don’t dump any of that dangerous soup into the ocean specifically.

I trust that last advantage detail ought to have been incorporated into this article. BTW it’s not simply Russian or Chinese Rockets that have harmful fills, it is ALL of them, paying little heed to who and where they are propelled.

SpaceX has invested significantly in its fairing recovery efforts as of late. The hardware on its newer fairings have been outfitted with parafoils, a type of parachute, and an on-board navigation system, that aim to guide it to safety. SpaceX also has a deal with a Louisiana-based ship company to use an oil supply vessel, called Mr. Steven. The ship is outfitted with a giant net that aims to capture the fairing before it hits the ocean surface. The financial terms of that deal have not been disclosed.

Date Night Movies: I am a big proponent of continuing to date your spouse after marriage. For the unmarried – lots of time together is a good thing too.

Thanks for an interesting post. This launch was a great event for all humanity and shows how far we went. I’m waiting for further launches and more impressive space events.

While considering that Mythical beast 2 has not yet flown, the conceivable life emotionally supportive networks haven’t yet been tried, considerably less approved. It’s a more shrewd way ahead to confine the number of new factors and investigations per preliminary; that way the subsequent information, should a disappointment happen, be fundamentally simpler to deconvolute than something else.

This is a great content… I’m grateful they were able get the payload aloft. I hope they do work out their issues with the central rocket. That one was reported to be harder to build, with possibility of slowing production of the Heavy down.
Reported else where there wasn’t enough fuel to land the rocket due to high winds. They need increase the reserves if their planning to return all three rockets. The size change may change their calculations and require further redesign.

This is great!
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket takes to the skies for the first time. SpaceX has invested significantly in its fairing recovery efforts as of late and i think the hardware on its newer fairings have been outfitted with parafoils, a type of parachute, and an on-board navigation system, that aim to guide it to safety. Thanks for the updates 😉

Thank’s to the suggest this space related information in this post.


SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket takes to the skies for the first time. SpaceX has invested significantly in its fairing recovery efforts as of late and i think the hardware on its newer fairings have been outfitted with parafoils, a type of parachute, and an on-board navigation system, that aim to guide it to safety. Thanks for the updates

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