SpaceX has made history: the rocket company, founded in 2002 by billionaire playboy Elon Musk, has launched his cherry-red Tesla Roadster into space, on course to the asteroid belt after overshooting its intended Mars orbit.
As with so much Musk does, the event was a hybrid of genuine breakthrough and nerd-baiting publicity stunt.
The presence of the car – replete with spacesuit-wearing crash test dummy, David Bowie playing from the speakers and a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quote on-screen – may not have any real point beyond generating good press pics, but the same can’t be said for the Falcon Heavy it was launched in.
SpaceX’s killer app has been the development of easily reusable booster rockets: once used up, they descend to Earth in a controlled drop, before landing vertically on land or sea, ready to be refuelled and sent off in another flight.
At least, that is the theory.
In practice, SpaceX’s rockets have hardly proven infallible: during the development of the technology, the company went so far as to release a blooper reel of all the various explosions caused by failed attempts to land the boosters, ending on the first successful landing in April 2016.
Tuesday’s launch was no exception.
The Falcon Heavy – which is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together – successfully landed its two outer stages in beautiful synchronisation, but the core module was a different story, hitting the water 100 metres from its intended landing barge at 300mph.
“[It] was enough to take out two thrusters and shower the deck with shrapnel,” Musk said.
Really Falcon big
Reusable rockets have been an ace in SpaceX’s pocket for a couple of years.
The real success of Tuesday’s event was managing to build a launch vehicle out of those reusable rockets that is capable of lifting almost twice as much into orbit as any other rocket in production.
The Falcon Heavy should be able to carry more than 60 tonnes to low Earth orbit (LEO), compared with 27.5 tonnes for the Space Shuttle, and 28.8 tonnes for the Boeing/Lockheed Martin co-produced Delta IV, previously the biggest rocket in contemporary use.
All those pale compared to the fireworks of the past, however: the Saturn V, which took man to the moon, had an LEO capacity of 140 tonnes.
But it also cost almost $2bn in 2018 dollars, as opposed to the $95m SpaceX is charging for a Falcon Heavy launch.
Since 1969, as space flight budgets have been slashed and the focus has shifted from gadding about on the moon to getting satellites in orbit, priorities have changed, and the glory days have faded into the past.
There is a long way to go before we are back where we started.
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