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SpaceX Braves New Cosmos With Falcon Heavy Launch

Elon Musk via Instagram
The Falcon Heavy successfully launched into space on Tuesday, and its payload is a Spaceman riding a Tesla Roadster.

The Florida Space Coast is the site of space travel’s most iconic moments. In 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong successfully traveled to the moon. They took off from Cape Canaveral on the Saturn V – one of the most powerful rockets to date.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is now the most powerful active rocket to date. It blasted off on its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday.

Falcon Heavy represents a new chapter for SpaceX, the company Elon Musk founded  to achieve low-cost space travel. The Falcon Heavy cost around $90 million and combines the power of several Falcon 9 rockets, which launched successfully last year.

For the test mission, Musk chose a rather fun payload: a cherry-red Tesla Roadster piloted by a dummy Spaceman, who's listening to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Its ultimate destination is Mars, where SpaceX hopes to send future spacecraft.

Musk tweeted the payload's latest location as of Tuesday night.

WLRN's Alexander Gonzalez spoke with Brendan Byrne, WMFE space reporter and host of the space podcast "Are We There Yet?," on what Falcon Heavy means for navigating the cosmos and the future of space travel.


WLRN: What did it take for the Falcon Heavy to successfully launch?

BYRNE: SpaceX has had quite a bit of success with its Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9s strapped together but turned out to be a little tougher than that to actually get it off the ground. So you actually have 27 engines firing nearly simultaneously. That's a lot of vibration and then you've got the two side boosters [that] are kind of pushing into each other. From an engineering standpoint, it was  very tough.

Tell us a little bit about what makes Falcon Heavy different and compare it to Saturn 5. How much more powerful is it? 

Well, it's not as powerful as a Saturn 5, but with today's launch it makes it the most powerful active rocket on the market, so it's able to lift about 140,000 pounds into orbit. For some perspective, that's like a 747 jetliner filled with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel.

It's a lot of weight that it's able to launch into space and why that's important is if you want to kind of explore deep space and you want to go farther into the solar system you need to be able to lift heavy things into space. We're talking big habitats, big heavy spacecraft. And Falcon Heavy opens up the market for that. That's kind of why it's such a big deal for Space X because this goes into their whole long-term goal, which is to put people on the surface of Mars.

And in those goals, where does NASA fit into that? 

NASA and SpaceX have had a very good working relationship with each other. NASA doesn't really launch things into space anymore. It contracts out with third parties and private companies to do those things.

Just this year, NASA has quite a few missions that are going up on SpaceX rockets. The rocket that NASA is developing is the Space Launch System. It is another heavy lift rocket, and it's still unclear as to whether or not that will be a competitor to NASA or if it's something that they can work together, Will NASA buy Falcon Heavy launches instead of paying a lot of money for another SLS, the Space Launch System rocket as well? That's still something that's still a little unclear.

Besides some of the technical aspects of today's launch, I think that this was really a moment that harkens back to the heyday of the Space Age. In what way did today kind of recapture that sense of space travel in the popular imagination?

Oh yeah, absolutely! Elon Musk knows how to draw a crowd. The top of the rocket was his cherry-red Tesla electric car with a spaceman in it. It was very good publicity.

But just driving in this morning, I had to be here around 10 in the morning. And the line to get in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is the closest public viewing area, it stretched miles back.

And what's the car's trajectory? 

For the first few hours, it was sitting in orbit and it was a way to prove to the Air Force that it's able to to get a heavy payload into a certain orbit. But after that, it's going to  fire the engines for about 30 seconds and it's going to be on a trajectory toward Mars and live in our solar system from then on out.

And Brendan, what's next for SpaceX? There's been talk of maybe tourist travel, right?

Right. So, this is the first launch for it. There are a handful of paying customers for Falcon Heavy – not too many. This was really a proof of concept. Today we can expect to see some more people seeing that it's an actual working rocket.

Elon Musk did tease to space tourists' going onto a trajectory that would put them around the moon and then it would have to take a Falcon Heavy to get there. So, this is a step in the direction of - it's crazy to say - private tourism to the moon. We are one step closer to that.