SpaceX has performed a successful test launch of its new Falcon Heavy Rocket. The rocket was carrying a rather unusual payload, a red Tesla Roadster being piloted (driven?) by a mannequin dubbed ‘Starman’, and has placed that payload into orbit around the Sun.
The rocket is the second most powerful ever built (the Saturn V is still king), and it’s also reusable. The Falcon Heavy has the potential to revitalize spaceflight by putting massive payloads into space for a fraction of the cost of what’s currently available.
Before the launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that he thought the chances of a successful mission was 50% but in the end the test was nearly perfect. The middle booster ran out of fuel in one of its three engines and crashed into the sea at 480 km per hour. After the test launch, the two side booster rockets returned to Earth so they could be reused for a future flight (though there are no plans to currently do so).
The highly unusual payload initially coasted nearby Earth, while livestreaming some spectacular and surreal views of Earth over the dashboard of the sports car. The Tesla Roadster was playing David Bowie while it floated by Earth, and the mannequin driver Starman was kept safe from the vacuum of space in a custom spacesuit.
After about six hours, the secondary stage engines fired to send the roadster into the orbit of Mars. However, the rockets appear to have overshot it, and the car is now on a trajectory that will see Starman taking a trip through the asteroid belt instead. This may be a difficult journey to navigate, as the orbit passes close to Jupiter and the gravity of the gas giant is likely to throw it off course, potentially resulting in the first car accident in space. Since the vehicle was not created in a sterile environment a collision would risk contaminating any planet or asteroid it crashed into. Many researchers have called for SpaceX to release more details of the orbit so that they can determine the spacecraft’s ultimate fate.
In the future, the Falcon Heavy will not only be capable of launching the equivalent of a double decker bus, but because it is reusable it will only cost a fraction to do so, compared to using single-use rockets. With such a magnificent machine, some critics questioned why a more useful payload wasn’t selected.
“Silly things are important,” said Musk defending his choice in a press conference after the launch. “Concrete is so boring. The imagery of it will get people around the world excited.”
Excited indeed, as it seems that Musk has potentially changed the legitimacy of the Flat Earth Theory proponents, without even intending to do so. As we all watched the live-stream that was up for several hours, we witnessed Starman in his Tesla Roadster speeding on his way towards destiny in the great beyond. All the while our beautiful round Earth hung in the blackness of space, spinning around and around, as only a globe can do. Those pictures will surely be sights for the ages, and in the decades and centuries to come they will harken back to the dawn of the next era in spacefaring. What a truly exciting time to be alive.