It was a line straight out of Douglas Adams’ satirical sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. On the dashboard of the first car in space was the simple message: “Don’t panic”.
In the driver’s seat was a dummy dressed in a space suit and strapped-in, with the radio playing David Bowie’s classic Space Oddity on a loop.
It was a bizarre moment from a surreal scene as SpaceX, the pioneering company owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, pulled off the unexpected with a perfect first launch of its massive new reusable rocket, Falcon Heavy.
At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, his dream finally became a reality as the mammoth craft lifted clear of its launch pad and soared above the Atlantic Ocean.
“I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road,” Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and the founder of the Tesla motor company, told the media. “But fortunately that’s not what happened.”
In the end, Falcon Heavy, or Delta IV, blasted off without a hitch, carrying its weird cargo of an old cherry-red Tesla sports car and a space-suited mannequin.
‘This was epic’
The SpaceX rocket is designed to carry the equivalent of five London double-decker buses into space, the BBC reported.
For Tuesday’s mission into the unknown, Musk decided to use his old Tesla as cargo. “That was epic,” he told the media. “That’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, literally.”
But there is also a serious side to this venture. The successful maiden flight restored the United States’ ability to launch a heavy-lift rocket into space.
The last time Cape Canaveral had that capability was in 2011 when the Space Shuttle made its final flight after 30 years of ferrying astronauts from a low-Earth orbit. Going even further back, it was the Saturn V rocket which NASA used to send Apollo astronauts to the moon in 1969.
“It will be game-over for all other heavy-lift rockets,” Musk told the media posse.
Already, the numbers for Falcon Heavy are impressive. It is capable of lifting more than 60 tons of payload to a low-Earth orbit, SpaceX’s spec sheet highlighted.
Another crucial aspect is the “low cost” of around $90 million for the powerful reusable rocket.
“In comparison, the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy [expendable rocket], which can lift nearly 32 tons, costs between $300 million and $500 million,” Tommy Sanford, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a private spaceflight industry group based in Washington, told Space.com.
Indeed, this will be a “game-changer” for the industry as what makes SpaceX’s launch so exciting is that the Falcon Heavy is essentially three small delivery systems strapped together.
All three booster stages, or the lower segments of the rocket, returned to Earth. Two touched down on the Florida coast just south of the Kennedy Space Center. Remarkably, their landing legs made contact with the ground virtually at the same time.
But the third “booster” suffered technical problems after running out of the fuel required to slow its descent enable a soft landing.
It was due to touch down on a drone ship stationed out at sea just off the Florida coast. Unfortunately, it missed its landing spot and crashed into the water at 500 kilometers an hour.
Thousands of onlookers
Still, Musk was ecstatic after the nerve-shredding event, which was watched by more than three million people on SpaceX’s online live stream and thousands of onlookers scattered across the beaches near Kennedy Space Center.
“It’ll be like trying to sell an aircraft where one aircraft company has a reusable aircraft and all the other companies have aircraft that are single-use, where you would parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash-land randomly somewhere,” Musk said. “Crazy as that sounds – that’s how the rocket business works.”
The next phase of the mission is just as “crazy.” The Tesla sports car, with its unique passenger and a cool soundtrack, is now being propelled millions of miles toward Mars.
As The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy succinctly put it: “Space is big … mindbogglingly big. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts to space.”
For Musk, the journey has just begun.