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SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy rocket

Conor Dillon
February 6, 2018

Millions around the globe watched Elon Musk's SpaceX launch one of world's most powerful rockets. DW explains what you need to know about the historic launch.

USA SpaceX Falcon Heavy
Image: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/SpaceX

SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy rocket

SpaceX's largest rocket blasted off on Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on its highly anticipated first test flight toward an orbit near Mars.

The unmanned Falcon Heavy propelled itself into space shortly after 3:45 p.m. (2045 UTC) to resounding cheers at SpaceX mission control in southern California.

Minutes after launch, two of the Heavy's booster rockets landed safely on the Cape Canaveral launch pad, a technological feat the company and CEO Elon Musk has promised will drastically reduce the costs of spaceflight.

Here are five key facts you need to know about the launch:

1. Elon Musk expected it to blow up

Elon Musk himself said that he'd consider Tuesday's launch a "win" if the Falcon Heavy rocket makes it "far enough away from the pad that it doesn't cause pad damage."

In other words, he was fine with it failing (exploding)... but hoped it wouldn't take any infrastructure along with it in Cape Canaveral, Florida. He's seen his rockets die before, and it could have happened again today.

Why would it have failed? The Falcon Heavy is best imagined as three separate rockets glued together. If one of the three malfunctions, there's a high chance of systemic failure.

2. What's inside

The rocket is carrying Musk's cherry red Tesla Roadster with a dummy in the driver's seat wearing one of SpaceX's sparkling new spacesuits. Back in December, Musk tweeted that the vehicle would be playing the song "Space Oddity" by David Bowie as it took off and that the glove box would contain a copy of Douglas Adams' book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," along with a towel and a sign with the words "Don't Panic," a reference to the book.

3. Where it's going

There seems to be some popular confusion that the roadster is going to land on Mars. It isn't. The idea is for the Falcon Heavy to propel the car into an orbit around the sun that approximates the orbit of Mars (but without the risk of it actually crashing into Mars and infecting it with Earth bacteria). There it would remain for quite some time.

(Others have theorized that the car would likely be retrieved by humans or humanoids at some point and auctioned off to the highest bidder.)

SpaceX fans say the "car thing" is Elon Musk having a bit of fun — as he well should after creating the world's most powerful operational rocket with his own private company in just over a decade.

Critics say it's a PR stunt that adds dangerous junk to our solar system and shows how little he cares about space debris:

(LEO means Low Earth Orbit.)

In any case, it takes months for any spacecraft to reach Mars, so there's still plenty of time to debate this one.

4. The rocket

The rocket's three "cores," or boosters, are designed to return to separate landing pads and softly touch down in an upright position. Two returned to Cape Canaveral successfully, but it was not immediately known whether the third had successfully touched down on a drone ship floating at sea. Footage of the two successful landings offered an exquisite act of rocket choreography, and expect someone (maybe us here at DW Sci-Tech) to underlay that footage with some fitting, classical music.

5. Who cares?

This is the dramatic opening salvo in Musk's mission to colonize Mars. The Falcon Heavy can carry nearly 17,000 kilograms to the Red Planet (37,000 lbs), and this is the rocket that's expected to kickstart the SpaceX campaign. That campaign is slated to put a million Earthlings on Mars by 2062. If that sounds ambitious, note that Musk often misses deadlines but usually hits the mark.

For those of us in Europe, the launch's timing gave many kids the opportunity to watch it live.

The launch may have doused their young imaginations in rocket fuel, but more importantly, it was a safe, soft practice run (No real humans onboard! No death! No sadness!) for a strange new world that's going to become their future very soon: where human beings travel to Mars and just … stay there.

And if they ask who made the rocket, they'll find out that it was created by a guy who was bullied and beaten up by other kids back when he was in school.

USA Elektroauto Tesla Elon Musk
Image: Reuters/L. Nicholson

Is there a better bedtime story for kids?