14 things you might not know about the SpaceX rocket launch

If you missed the launch or just wondered why there's a car in space, we have all the answers.

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Patrick Holland
6 min read

One of the most ridiculous parts of the launch was seeing a dummy astronaut called "The Starman" inside a Tesla Roadster floating in space.


Before Tuesday's test launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, not even the company's CEO Elon Musk knew what to expect.

"It's either going to be an exciting success or an exciting failure," he said. "One big boom! I'd say tune in, it's going to be worth your time."

Musk was right: There was a big boom when the Falcon Heavy's 27 engines fired and lifted SpaceX's largest rocket into space . The booster rockets returned to Earth, landing at the same time like a pair of synchronized divers at the Olympics. The payload, a Tesla Roadster, made it to Mars orbit and beyond.

The launch felt part scientific breakthrough, part Silicon Valley product launch. It was filled with wonder, disbelief and humor -- there's a car traveling through space with a sign saying "Don't Panic!"

The Falcon Heavy launch had a number of significant moments that were easy to miss. So I gathered all the notable instances and SpaceX Easter eggs here together.

Watch this: Watch SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket make its first test flight

This rocket is kind of a big deal

SpaceX has launched rockets before, but the Falcon Heavy is the company's largest one to date. Tuesday's launch was the first attempt at sending it with a payload into space.

In a press conference post-launch, Elon Musk said, "Crazy things can come true. I didn't really think this would work. When I see the rocket liftoff, I see a thousand things that could not work. And it's amazing when they do."

SpaceX has embraced the ups and downs that come with pushing rocket technology forward. Last year, the company posted this video, titled "How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster," on its YouTube channel. It's basically a highlight reel of rocket booster failures -- aka lots of explosions.

The Falcon's name

SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are named after Han Solo's ride in Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon.

It's big

At 230 feet (70 meters) tall, the Falcon Heavy is without a doubt impressive, but it's not the largest rocket ever. That distinction goes to NASA's Saturn V rocket, which stood 330 feet (111 meters) tall.

Designed to be reusable

An early goal for SpaceX was the development of a system of reusable rockets. For decades one of the largest cost factors behind rockets was that they had to be built anew for each launch. Musk compared it to if airplanes had to be discarded after one flight.

SpaceX focused on how to return its rockets to Earth and make a controlled landing. Last year, SpaceX did just that when the company landed a Falcon 9 booster onto a drone ship floating in the Atlantic. The drone ship's name is "Of Course I Still Love You," in tribute to the late sci-fi author Iain M. Banks.

Including that first landing, SpaceX has landed 21 Falcon 9 boosters back on Earth.

Three rockets

Last year's Falcon 9 had one booster rocket, while the Falcon Heavy has three: two first-stage boosters (aka Falcon 9 rockets) and one core booster. These three rockets give the Falcon Heavy 5 million pounds (2.3 million kg) of thrust, which allows it to carry 70 tons (63.5 metric tonnes) of cargo into space.

Both of the Falcon Heavy's first stage boosters returned and landed safely in the SpaceX landing zone.


One of the best moments from the Falcon Heavy launch was when the two first-stage boosters landed in sync back to Earth at a landing zone. It seemed unreal. The third booster, the core booster, did not land successfully and crashed at 300 mph (480 kph) into the landing drone ship in the ocean.

It can carry whales

The Falcon Heavy can carry a 140,700-pound (63,800-kg) payload into lower Earth orbit -- that's the equivalent of two humpback whales. For a trip to Mars, it can carry 37,000 lbs (16,800 kg) -- about the weight of 31 grand pianos.

The rocket car

When a new rocket is tested, the payload is usually a concrete block. Typically, Musk thought that was boring and opted for a cherry-red Tesla Roadster with a dummy astronaut named Starman (after the David Bowie song) in the driver's seat.

"It looks so ridiculous and impossible. You can tell it's real because it looks so fake. We'd have way better CGI if it was fake," said Musk. "The imagery of it is something that's going to get people excited about it around the world."

The Roadster sits atop the Falcon Heavy's second stage.

Starman in Red Roadster

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

A brand new spacesuit

The spacesuit Starman wears is actually one Space X revealed last summer. It looks sleek and futuristic with its gray and white color scheme and was tested to double vacuum pressure.

Watch this: Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster: Milestone or space junk?

Tesla Roadster Easter eggs

The car itself had a handful of Easter eggs:

  • On the dashboard sits a tiny Roadster and spaceman
  • The dashboard's screen displays "Don't Panic!" a reference to the cover of the guide in the novel "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
  • "Made on Earth by humans" is printed on the car's circuit board
  • In the car is a disk with a digital copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of sci-fi books
  • There's a plaque in the car engraved with the names of 6,000 SpaceX employees

Watch the car in space

The Roadster has several cameras mounted on it and transmitted a 24/7 live stream. If only my Skype call looked that good. The live video feed has ended for now, but checkout the archive video of the Roadster in all its celestial glory below:

Tesla and David Bowie

If you're going to play a song in a car floating to Mars, "Life on Mars" by David Bowie seems like a perfect choice. Though a good runner-up would be Gustav Holst's "Mars, The Bringer of War" -- you know, from "Venture Brothers."

One interesting yin-yang of culture and science is while the Tesla Roadster played Bowie's music in space, Bowie himself played scientist Nikola Tesla, for whom the company is named, in the Christopher Nolan film "The Prestige," as pointed out in this tweet from No Film School's Jon Fusco:

Trump's tweet

Even President Trump got caught up in the moment, sending a tweet congratulating Musk, SpaceX and NASA and acknowledging the importance of what had been achieved.

Musk, who quit Trump's advisory councils in June in protest at his climate change policy, replied, "Thank you on behalf of SpaceX. An exciting future lies ahead!"

To Mars and beyond

On Tuesday, Musk posted a tweet saying that the Falcon Heavy's third burn was successful.

"Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt."

The second-stage with attached Roadster could be in an elliptical orbit around the sun for millions if not billions of years. At the press conference post-launch Musk joked that maybe aliens will discover it and wonder: "What were these guys doing? Did they worship this car? Why do they have a little car in the car? That will really confuse them."

The next steps

Musk confirmed that the Falcon Heavy is destined to be a cargo rocket and will be launched again in about three to six months. Eventually it will be used to deliver payloads like satellites for both private companies and the military, just like the Falcon 9.

"Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload," said Musk. "It can launch twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world. It can launch things right to Pluto and beyond."

SpaceX is developing an even bigger rocket called the BFR -- Big Falcon Rocket. The name is a reference to a gun in the game Doom, the BFG9000, which stood for Big F******* Gun. The rocket will use 31 engines and should be able to carry 150 tons (136 metric tonnes) -- twice what the Falcon Heavy can. Its purpose would be to carry people on deep-space explorations, such as going to Mars. Testing for this rocket won't begin until 2019 and it wouldn't be ready for use for at least three or four years.

And speaking of putting people in space, Musk still hopes to launch astronauts into space via its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket by the end of the year.

Wow. Just wow.

Elon Musk comes alive on social media: Part entrepreneur, part madman

See all photos

First published Feb. 8, 1:07 p.m. PT

Update Feb. 9 at 3:10 p.m.: Adds Feb. 6 tweet from Elon Musk about location