By Hannah Clark
On Tuesday, February 6, SpaceX successfully test launched their Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, becoming the world’s most powerful rocket in current operation, only surpassed in payload by a 1973 Saturn V moon rocket.
On Launch Complex 39A, the launch window opened up at 1:30 p.m. EST, but it would be hours before the countdown truly started. Due to powerful upper atmospheric winds, the launch was pushed back multiple times, creating concern of a delay, considering SpaceX’s window was set to close at 4 p.m. EST. Fuel up began at -1:25:00 hours and fingers were crossed. With luck, the backup window on February 7 was rendered unnecessary and the launch began at approximately 3:45 p.m. EST.
The vehicle’s first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 engine cores and 27 collective SpaceX developed Merlin engines, the two side boosters being connected to the center core at its base and interstage. The three cores create an impressive 5 million pounds of thrust, lifting over twice the payload of the next most powerful operational rocket.
Due to SpaceX’s mission to make space travel affordable, both side boosters have been reused, one launching the Thaicom 8 satellite in May, 2016, and the second supporting the CRS-9 mission shortly after in July. Following this trend, they planned to re-land all three cores.
When take off began, the SpaceX team’s roaring excitement could be heard over the live stream. With T-0 passed and the rocket safely through Max Q, the highest stress the rocket would experience, the Falcon Heavy team readied for an even more thrilling moment: the attempted landing of the three cores. The two side cores separated at 2:33 minutes and began their return to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Setting down on SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2, the two rockets were so in sync that one could hardly differentiate their camera views until the final moments before touchdown. Due to intense vibrations caused by the center core’s landing burn, signal was lost shortly before 7:58 minutes while attempting to land the third component on SpaceX’s drone ship off Florida’s coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
One notable aspect of the launch was the Falcon Heavy’s simulation payload. Often rockets will carry cement to create the weight that would be experience in a real launch, but the founder and lead designer, Elon Musk, decided to have a little fun with it, deploying his midnight-cherry Tesla Roadster instead. The car was complete with a space suit wearing driver named Star Man and a console screen that read “Don’t panic.” After drifting through space for a few hours, the roadster will begin its billion year orbit around the sun, eventually drifting near Mars.