SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket nails launch, makes history

Elon Musk's rocket company has sent its most powerful system yet, Falcon Heavy, on its way to space and into history. And the launch was unreal.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
3 min read

After more than two hours of delays due to high-altitude winds Tuesday, SpaceX and its founder and CEO Elon Musk lit up all 27 engines at the base of Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket launched from US soil since the Saturn V from NASA's Apollo days.

The demonstration launch has already been historic in multiple other ways.

For the first time ever, a pair of recycled boosters helped send a heavy payload to space. Only eight minutes later, those same two Falcon 9 side boosters returned and landed simultaneously at adjacent landing pads at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a sight unlike anything ever seen in spaceflight. 

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

The launch took place just a few miles away from pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, the same place where Apollo 11 left the Earth almost half a century ago to take humans to the moon for the first time.  

Just after 12:45 p.m. PT, the massive launch system shot as much as 5 million tons of thrust out of its tail end and managed to clear the launch tower without any explosive incidents. 

This cleared an important first hurdle for the long-awaited launch, even though it was only the first part of a very long journey that aims to send a payload consisting of Musk's cherry red Tesla Roadster on its way toward Mars.

There were doubts, acknowledged by Musk himself, that the 27 engines would play nice together when they all fired at once. NASA notoriously had problems during the testing of the Saturn V with the acoustics from the roar of the engines causing explosions.

But after literally shaking the ground where spectators watched from a distance, the two side boosters lifted the rocket toward space, then detached from the center core and performed a flip maneuver to head back to Earth. After both landed safely, the fate of the center booster was less certain as the camera feed on the drone ship in the Atlantic cut out just before the landing attempt.

Musk said later at a press conference that the center booster had been lost. Only one of three engines relit for the landing burn and the rocket hit the surface of the Atlantic Ocean at 300 miles per hour (483 km/h) about 328 feet (100 meters) from the drone ship, which was damaged and showered with shrapnel in the process. Musk told reporters there were no plans to re-use the center booster, even if it had been recovered.

About 45 minutes after the launch, Musk tweeted that the second-stage booster had been successfully restarted. The upper booster and payload spent several hours "cruising" in the Van Allen belts surrounding Earth to see how the spacecraft fared getting zapped by the intense radiation there.

Tuesday evening, the second-stage booster performed one final burn to push the Roadster and its dummy driver dubbed "Starman" in the direction of Mars. Musk reported via Twitter, however, that the push may have been a little bit too hard, sending the newly initiated space car on a course for the asteroid belt.

The live feed of the Roadster and "Star Man" stopped less than five hours after it began, so this may be the last we hear of a very memorable payload.

First published Deb. 6 at 12:47 p.m. PT.

Update, 1 p.m. PT: Adds the successful landing of two side boosters. 
Update, 1:54 p.m. PT: Adds more detail about the remaining part of the mission and status of the center booster.  
Update, 5:47 p.m. PT: Adds the loss of the center booster.  
Update, 9:08 p.m PT.: Adds details of the final burn by the second stage.

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