SpaceX Falcon Heavy: 5 things you missed if you didn’t watch the historic launch

Yesterday, SpaceX blasted the world’s most powerful operational rocket into orbit, as part of a bombastic mission that looks to signal a new era in commercial space travel. The Falcon Heavy shot off from Cape Canaveral, with two of its three reusable boosters returning in one piece. The payload – Elon Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster – then began its elliptical orbit, broadcasting surreal scenes of a dummy driver, dubbed ‘Starman’, behind the wheel… far above the Earth.  

It was a lot to take in, so here are five major parts of the launch, in case you missed the action when it happened. Elon Musk also shared a handy illustration of the different stages planned for the mission.

1. The launch itself

Cut to around 21 minutes in the above video to see the Falcon Heavy launch in a bloom of smoke and fire. While a number of setbacks over the past few weeks pushed the test back, including the shutdown of the US government, yesterday presented ideal conditions for a launch.

2. Synchronous landing of side boosters

The Falcon Heavy’s three boosters are each the equivalent of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, which should give you some rough idea of just how powerful the Falcon Heavy is. Like those rockets, the plan was to have them re-land after use so they can be recycled. SpaceX managed this in spectacular fashion with its two side boosters, which landed on the ground in perfect synchronicity.  

3. Starman floating above the Earthspacex_starman

Elon Musk sent a Tesla Roadster into space. To some it’s a whimsical move from an enigmatic pioneer, to others it’s a clear statement about the era of private space missions (As The Atlantic said: “It’s ad astra, with emphasis on the ad.”) Regardless on the symbolism, the sight of a car orbiting the Earth gave the launch a certain surreal edge.

The car and its ‘Starman’ dummy driver “coasted” for six hours before a final engine burn sent them into an elliptical orbit, which over time was planned to take them closer to Mars. It looks like SpaceX overshot this slightly, with the orbit now taking the car beyond Mars’ orbit – into an asteroid belt.

You can watch Starman’s live feed below.

4. Third booster’s failure to land

Whilst the two side boosters re-landed without a hitch, the third, core booster was a different story. As SpaceX confirmed in a press conference, the booster only managed to relight one of the three engines needed for it to land. This meant it hit the water at 300 mph, close to the drone ship where it was supposed to land. In fact, the crash happened so close to the drone ship that it took out two of the ship’s engines.

“[It] was enough to take out two thrusters and shower the deck with shrapnel,” Musk told reporters.spacex_falcon_heavy

5. Big words

The success of the mission has kick-started a new conversation around space travel, kindling a level of excitement that has been largely absent since the Apollo era. After the launch, Musk made a very direct call for a new space race:

“I think it’s going to open up a sense of possibility. […] We want a new space race. Space races are exciting.”

Musk went on to talk about how SpaceX’s success will “encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights” and aim to compete with the Falcon Heavy.

Good ol’ geopolitical leveraging isn’t going anywhere either. Shortly after the launch, Donald Trump took to Twitter to congratulate Musk, and highlight the company’s American origin. “Congratulations @ElonMusk and @SpaceX on the successful #FalconHeavy launch,” the US president wrote. “This achievement, along with @NASA’s commercial and international partners, continues to show American ingenuity at its best!”  

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