To the strains of David Bowie’s Space Oddity billionaire Elon Musk’s red Tesla electric car has been launched on an endless road trip in solar orbit past Mars.
Launched from the same Florida pad used by NASA nearly 50 years ago to send men to the moon, the Falcon Heavy became the most powerful rocket in use today with three boosters and 27 engines.
Not only did the rocket lift the red sports car into orbit – with a dummy “Starman” at the wheel – two of the three boosters came back and landed upright at Cape Canaveral.
— abdul (@Advil) February 6, 2018
Two of the boosters were recycled and programmed to return for a simultaneous touchdown at Cape Canaveral, while the third, brand new, set its sights on an ocean platform almost 500km offshore.
It’s carrying Elon Musk’s own car
Not counting Apollo moon buggies, the Roadster is the first automobile to speed right off the planet.
SpaceX is hoping for live shots of the car from on-board cameras, once the protective enclosure comes off and the car sails off fully exposed.
The car faces considerable speed bumps before settling into its intended orbit around the sun, an oval circle stretching from the orbit of Earth on one end to the orbit of Mars on the other.
First, the Roadster needed to survive lift-off, no small feat for a rocket hot off the factory floor. Then it has to endure a cosmic bombardment on its several hours of cruising through the highly charged Van Allen radiation belts encircling Earth. Finally, a thruster has to fire to put the car on the right orbital course.
If it weathers all this, the Roadster will reach the vicinity of Mars in six months, Mr Musk said.
Mr Musk has had plenty of experience with rocket accidents, from his original Falcon 1 test flights to his follow-up Falcon 9s, one of which exploded on a nearby pad during a 2016 ignition test.
High-stakes launch captures attention
The Falcon Heavy is a combination of three Falcon 9s, the rocket that the company uses to ship supplies to the International Space Station and lift satellites.
Spacex is reusing first-stage boosters to save on launch costs.
The Heavy is intended for massive satellites, like those used by the US military and major-league communication companies.
Live view of Starman https://t.co/gvSlztlE6l
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 6, 2018
Even before the test flight, customers were signed up.
Given the high stakes and high drama, the launch attracted huge crowds not seen since NASA’s last space shuttle flight seven years ago.
While the shuttles had more lift-off muscle than the Heavy, the all-time leaders in both size and might were NASA’s Saturn V rockets, which first flew astronauts to the moon in 1968.
The start of a billion-year journey
The car could be traveling between Earth and Mars’ neighbourhoods for a billion years, according to the high-tech billionaire.
Mr Musk acknowledged the Roadster could come “quite close” to Mars during its epic cruise, with only a remote chance of crashing into the red planet.
Win or lose, the Heavy already is rattling the launch market, with its cost less than one-tenth that of NASA’s Space Launch System megarocket in development for moon and Mars expeditions.
SpaceX has decided against flying passengers on the Heavy, Mr Musk told reporters, and instead will accelerate development of an even bigger rocket to accommodate deep-space crews. His ultimate goal is to establish a city on Mars.