Falcon Heavy: Spectacle, Whimsy on First Flight

SpaceX sent its first Falcon Heavy rocket into space on Tuesday, launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Liftoff was at 3:45 p.m. EST.

The 229-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide rocket, equipped with 27 rocket engines at the base of its three-part booster, cleanly tore into the sky and headed downrange over the Atlantic Ocean without so much as a hiccup during the initial climb out.

The two side-mounted boosters, their lifting job finished, separated from the core vehicle and returned to make a near simultaneous touchdown on two landing platforms at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station -- this after dazzling onlookers with the spectacle of supersonic formation flying.

Meanwhile, the central core of the Falcon Heavy continued its job, sending its second stage into a parking orbit over Earth and revealing a cherry-red Tesla Roadster that was the personal electric car of SpaceX boss Elon Musk.

If all goes well with a third burn of the Falcon Heavy's second stage later this evening -- not a given considering it will pass through the harmful environment of the Van Allen Radiation Belts -- the rocket will send the Tesla on its way to an extended orbit as from the sun as Mars.

The Tesla was the company's whimsical way to give the rocket something to carry on its first demonstration flight other than something such as concrete blocks, a chunk of lead or even barrels of water. When the Falcon 9 first flew, its only payload was a wheel of cheese, selected as a tribute to a famous Monty Python skit.

So far the only possible trouble with Tuesday's launch involved the recovery of the main first stage core vehicle, which was to attempt a landing on SpaceX's autonomous drone barge dubbed "Of Course I Still Love You." Video of the landing froze at the moment of touchdown, as has happened before. 

But SpaceX launch commentators did not confirm the status of the third booster core before ending their broadcast. There has been no official word one way or the other since then.

In any case, the mission is a clear success for SpaceX, which has spent years planning, developing, testing and simply waiting for this day to arrive.

With its ability to carry more than 140,000 pounds of cargo into low Earth orbit riding atop some five million pounds of thrust, the Falcon Heavy is now the world's most powerful rocket in terms of overall capability.

If SpaceX can keep the price of the big rocket to the relatively small fees it has advertised -- currently $90 million -- then it very much has the opportunity to fundamentally change the economics of space commerce in this nation, and around the world.

But that's for the future to reveal. In the meantime, the next thing on SpaceX's plate is their next Falcon 9 launch from the Cape, now targeted for Feb. 22. The rocket is to carry a commercial communications satellite into Earth orbit for a company in Spain.

-- Jim Banke

Next Launch: Falcon 9 on Feb. 22


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