How SpaceX's Falcon Heavy was really a blast from the past

A new chapter in space is under way. But there's more historical depth to Elon Musk's rocket dreams than you may realize.

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
5 min read
Jon Morgan/National Geographic

On Tuesday, SpaceX and Elon Musk launched Falcon Heavy, the second most powerful space rocket humanity has ever known.

The spectacle included an unprecedented and near simultaneous landing by two first-stage rockets mere minutes after the launch. It also sent Musk's cherry-red 2008 Tesla Roadster, with a spacesuit-wearing dummy named Starman in the driver's seat, headed out into the solar system.

It was a good day to be a fan of Musk, rockets or adventures in space travel. That's where I come in.

Two weeks before this most anticipated of commercial space missions, I made a pilgrimage to stand beneath the only rocket to pack more oomph than Musk's baby: the mighty Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon.

The Saturn V and the Falcon Heavy also have an eerie, unexpected historical link. More on that in a bit.

One of three remaining Saturn V rockets in the world rests horizontally above the floor of the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The series of massive metal tubes spans over 138 feet (42.1 meters) in length, making it nearly impossible to take in the entire thing from any single vantage point inside the museum building where it's on permanent display.


The Saturn V rocket on display at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Jon Morgan/National Geographic

The power produced by its five F-1 engines is even more incomprehensible. The beast burns 20 tons of fuel per second to create the more than 7 million pounds of thrust needed to carry itself and a payload of up to 310,000 pounds (140,000 kilograms) out of the grasp of Earth's gravity.

But I had come to Huntsville to do more than just gawk at an empty rocket from another century.

Enlarge Image

They told me it wouldn't make me queasy. I believed them. I shouldn't have.

Jon Morgan/National Geographic

I was invited to attend a special session of space camp here with about a dozen journalists, all gathered to get a little taste of the astronaut life in advance of the debut of National Geographic's upcoming series "One Strange Rock," which features a number of former residents of low-Earth orbit. We spent two days participating in simulated space walks and missions to the International Space Station. In between, we designed our own heat shields, and those of us without a terrible track record of motion sickness were jostled around by various rides meant to simulate the forces felt by NASA astronauts on a mission.

For decades, I've repressed the fantasy of being an astronaut -- and perhaps one day setting foot on another world. My earliest memory of a major current event is watching the Challenger space shuttle disaster unfold, live, on a television in my first-grade classroom. For me, the implicit dangers of space exploration have always been very clear and impossible to separate from the fantasy.

As a kid, this made the draw of a place like space camp all the more appealing. I wanted to go, not because it could be a stepping stone to a career in space, but because it was the closest I'd ever allow myself to get to such a thing.

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But as I grew older, my Star Trek fantasies were further repressed when my fascination with space was replaced by other things adolescents often focus on. As an adult I watched the Columbia disaster from a remote location in rural Alaska and felt somewhat vindicated to have so smartly neglected my interest in space during those years. It was still so dangerous, after all.

Then a few years back, my curiosity began to be resurrected. First by a little robot of the same name and then by a man named Elon who seems incapable of repressing any of his own dreams.

Now I was finally here in Huntsville, getting a little taste of what I missed out on as a kid, but still unable to focus completely on the experience. However, this time it had nothing to do with fear and self-repression.

Falcon Heavy's echo of a long-ago future

While the ever cheerful and helpful staff waited for me to take my turn at a simulated moonwalk, I was glued to a video feed on my phone of launch pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- the very same site where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins began their historic Apollo 11 mission to ride a Saturn V all the way to the surface of the moon. But this time, almost half a century later, it was Falcon Heavy sitting on the same historic launch pad.

I watched on my phone as smoke poured out from beneath Heavy's 27 engines. Not far from me, writers in ill-fitting flight suits made their own steps on the "moon" (basically just an uneven mold of some sort meant to replicate the lunar surface) with the help of huge springs and a harness hanging from the ceiling.

It turns out the design for Falcon Heavy and Elon Musk's vision of humans on Mars may have originated, at least in part, in the mind of the man who was instrumental in creating the Saturn V here in Huntsville.

Before German-turned-American engineer Wernher von Braun was conscripted to build rockets for the Apollo project, he published a short book in German, "Das Marsprojeckt" (later translated to English). It envisioned reusable rockets, in a configuration more like Falcon Heavy than Saturn V, journeying to the red planet. His sketches on display in Huntsville look like they could be back-of-the-napkin notes taken from SpaceX headquarters.


Wernher von Braun's idea of a Mars rocket may have predicted Falcon Heavy.


Weirdest of all, von Braun imagined a future Martian government in which the head of state went by the title "Elon."

But Falcon Heavy didn't move from that historic launch site as I watched it thunder to life. I was viewing the static fire test performed in advance of Tuesday's groundbreaking launch.

After my moon walk and a 45-second ride in the disorienting Multi-Axis Trainer, which simulates an uncontrolled tumble through space, I quickly made my way to the cafeteria, which is more like something out of elementary school than "2001: A Space Odyssey."  I commandeered an open table and wrote a post about the successful hold-down firing of Heavy. It was all a bit surreal to be surrounded by the rich past of spaceflight while monitoring the start of its next chapter from afar.


Going to distant places requires big ships.

Eric Mack/CNET

Spending a few days amid all that history amped up my anticipation for Tuesday's launch, which did not disappoint.

But space camp also reinforced that I'm still not cut out to be an astronaut. After the guaranteed-not-to-make-you-nauseous Multi-Axis Trainer did make me queasy, I skipped all the other G-force simulators and scuba training, which looked like a blast in retrospect.

Now that I've finally had the space camp experience, I think I'm unlikely to return to give any of those simulators another try anytime soon. But I do look forward to returning to the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville one day, perhaps when the museum opens a new wing dedicated to Falcon Heavy and the pioneers of 21st century space exploration.

Originally published Feb. 5 at 1:45 p.m. PT.
Updated Feb. 9 at 12:02 p.m. PT:  Added details about the Falcon Heavy launch.

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