You probably know by now, unless you’ve been living under a rock or have been completely oblivious to current events, that SpaceX launched its long-delayed heavy-lift rocket dubbed “Falcon Heavy” on Tuesday, February 6th at 3:45pm. I happened to be off work that day and I was getting updates about the progress of the launch through the SpaceX app called “SpaceXNow”. If you are a big fan of SpaceX, I highly recommend downloading the app on your phone, and it’s free, but I digress. The launch was supposed to take place at 1:30pm, but around noon, I got notified that the launch was being delayed due to higher than allowable upper level winds. I didn’t think too much about it, because they had until 4pm to launch before they ran out of the available launch window. The time became 3:15pm, and I got a little nervous. I was checking “Spaceflightnow.com” because they stream updates on their website on launch day and I read that they were going to pick a final launch time. 3:45pm was the time, but they were still monitoring the winds aloft.
About 20 minutes before launch, I turned on the SpaceX channel on YouTube and watched their live webcast. Over the years, I’ve grown to really love their webcasts for their launches. They had great footage and explained in every day language that people can understand what’s going on. It has been known since December that Elon Musk was going to send his cherry red Tesla into orbit. I think that was brilliant on his part to grab the attention of the media and other people who may not have otherwise would have even have given this flight any attention. It obviously worked because, according to Spaceflightnow, it was the second highest live stream in YouTube history!
The host stopped their commentary about 3 minutes before launch to let the viewer listen to the communication from the SpaceX control center and to hear the sounds of the rocket to get immersed in the experience. I knew there were a lot of unknowns and a lot of ways this launch could go wrong. I was worried about the rocket failing either on the pad, or lifting off and having major issues with engines and falling back to the pad or in the Complex 39A area and causing major damage that would delay even farther the Crew Dragon flights. The other place I was concerned was at booster separation because it was never tested in flight before. There’s a non crew flight that is scheduled in August, and a crew flight in December. As the countdown got down to terminal countdown (T-10 seconds), my hands were sweaty and my heart began to move to my throat!
At T-5 seconds, the two side boosters lit their engines, 9 on each side, and at T-3 seconds the center core ignited it’s 9 Merlin engines and it created a HUGE “thunderhead” of steam to the north of the pad and at T-0, the Falcon Heavy slowly rose off of its launch mount, beginning it’s maiden flight, sending the Tesla and it’s spacesuit clad dummy dubbed “Starman” into Earth orbit and into an heliocentric orbit that will take it to the orbit of Mars. The rocket climbed higher and higher and it cleared the pad perimeter, made it through the speed of sound and MaxQ (the period of maximum pressure and stress on the rocket as it climbs out of the lower atmosphere). Then around the 2 minute 30 second point it was time for the engines to shut down and for the two side core boosters to separate, and it happened smoothly. Great footage was shown from the center core of booster separation and cameras of both of the now separated cores showed footage of it’s boost back toward Florida (Cape Canaveral) as the center booster kept burning for about another minute before its engines shut down and it perform a boostback burn but it attempted to land on the floating barge about 212 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral called “Of Course I Still Love You”.
Both side boosters made a spectacular and breathtaking decent and both touched down within mere seconds of each other, about 500 feet apart on Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, some less than ten miles from the launch pad they launched from. Both of these were previously flown Falcon 9 first stages that were cleaned and refurbished before debuting as part of Falcon Heavy. The only anomaly came with the landing of the center core. During a press conference after the launch, Musk told reporters what happened to the center booster. The boost back burn and entry burn occurred as planned, but the booster ran out of ignition fluid and instead of having three engines firing to slow it down, only one engine was lit and it missed the ocean barge and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, sending debris onto the barge. Considering this was the only anomaly that happened on the first flight of this vehicle, I would consider this a non-issue since it was a secondary objective.
The webcast continued (although there was no mention of what happened to the center booster during the broadcast), there was footage briefly inside of the payload faring. As soon as the faring separated, revealing the Tesla and “Starman”, the David Bowie tune “Life on Mars” began playing, and that sent chills up and down my spine, my hair stood on end. Seeing this odd scene of a Tesla and a dummy in a SpaceX spacesuit was epic, especially against the backdrop of the Earth. The SpaceX webcast ended about 10 minutes after launch, but SpaceX had live streaming from the Tesla and “Starman”. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it. Knowing that this car was up in space, going through the Van Allen radiation belts for until the final burn six hours after launch.
As the car and second stage coasted for six hours, there was uncertainty about if the third burn would be successful. There was a chance that the remaining oxygen could have boiled off or a number of other things could have impeded a successful ignition, but the time came and amateur watchers caught pictures of the second stage firing to get the escape velocity of Earth’s gravity and send it to the orbit of Mars. As it happens, the burn was a little too proficient and the Tesla and Starman’s orbit will now go between Earth orbit and just beyond Mars’ orbit as it orbits the Sun. Unfortunately the battery on the second stage would be drained about 12 hours after launch. I was hoping there would be solar power or some way to keep the cameras rolling as the car and “Starman” made it’s journey through deep space. Just before the batteries died, there was one, powerful shot of the departing car and passenger, heading to pass the orbit of the Moon in just a few hours later.
The photo of the Tesla and ‘Starman’ departing the blue and white marble bringing the imagination and American “can do” attitude, bringing, hopefully, America into the future of private spaceflight. A new economy can emerge in the not so distant future. We are all witnessing something very special. A billionaire using something to spark the imagination of those of us that the Tesla and ‘Starman’ left behind. Now spaceflight and the ability to send objects to distant worlds are not just for government run space programs. While the need of NASA still remains, and the use of the Space Launch System will have an important role, SpaceX has made a mark that will be ever lasting.
What’s next for SpaceX? Well, there are around 27 more launches this year and two of those are more Falcon Heavy flights. Musk shared during the news conference that progress on the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) is progressing well and there could be test (hopper) flights in Texas as soon as next year. This rocket will be over 300 feet tall and will be used to carry humans (100 at a time) to the Moon to create a lunar base or to Mars. The future of space exploration is exciting again. I’m looking forward to seeing someone in my lifetime set foot on either the Moon or Mars.
This final picture will depict Launch Pad 39A how it looked back in 2011 when the last space shuttle launched from it, and how it looked as of February 2018. This seems to be the time for SpaceX I am excited to see what they have in store next. Hopefully with BFR, if there is another cool payload being sent into deep space, there will be a way to keep the public engaged. Seeing ‘Starman’ in space felt like I was along for the ride and hopefully Musk and the SpaceX team will build upon that and create a channel for the next time for months if not years of streaming available to those of us who are avid space fans. I hope one day to be able to cover SpaceX launches live or just go see a Falcon Heavy or a Falcon 9 launch live. But like the vast majority of us, following along through their webcasts are almost as good as being there.