CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The gigantic Falcon Heavy rocket, designed and manufactured by the private SpaceX company, lifted off on Tuesday from the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its maiden flight, carrying into space an electric Tesla automobile.
The firm also – at least partially – achieved another objective: recovering at least two of the three boosters that sent the payload aloft.
The rocket, 70 meters (about 230 feet) long with a cargo capacity of 66 tons, or 17 tons if Mars is the destination, lifted off at 3:45 pm from Launch Pad 39A at the NASA space center, the same launch pad from which the Apollo missions went into space – and to the Moon – in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Thousands of people watched the launch from specially marked areas at the Kennedy Space Center, cheering, clapping and embracing one another when the rocket lifted off successfully while David Bowie’s iconic song “Space Oddity” was playing over loudspeakers.
Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the two side boosters separated from the main rocket and 30 seconds later the capsule containing the Tesla Roadster, with a mannequin named “Starman” at the wheel, separated from the third booster.
One of the main concerns of SpaceX president Elon Musk had been the performance of the rocket in the minute after liftoff, when the rocket had to withstand the maximum aerodynamic pressure as it accelerated.
Another challenge in the liftoff was to land all three boosters after they had separated from the capsule so that they can be reused on future missions. The two side boosters landed simultaneously on land, but word was still out on whether the central booster landed properly on a floating platform at sea.
The cost of a Falcon Heavy mission is about $90 million.
SpaceX has set for itself the ambitious objective of transporting humans into space, thus resuming manned missions to the Moon and/or Mars.