SpaceX Does A Hat Trick (Less One)
“Did you see it?,” came the question, followed a nanosecond later by the loudest palm-to-forehead slap in this part of Florida. “&GHY no! I forgot!”
“It” was SpaceX’s first launch of its new Falcon Heavy, currently the world’s most powerful booster, although not the most powerful ever. I was perfectly positioned to view it from the air. I’m in Tavares, Florida, working on a seaplane rating and the weather was cloudlessly perfect. The Cape is about 90 miles southeast. We took off at 3 p.m., got deeply involved in glassy water landings and just forgot about the 3:45 p.m. launch time. Maybe it’s on my video footage. Damn it! History escapes me again.
Probably just as well; at 100 miles, these launches—which I’ve seen before—appear as bright, intense red flares of light trailed by dense smoke. Cool for sure, but not as jaw-dropping as SpaceX’s phenomenally slick public coverage of the launch, which I’m sure many watched. (You can see the full launch video in our coverage.)
And therein lies an important aspect of this launch: showmanship. Yeah, that’s a good thing. The beaches near Canaveral were jammed with people in a way not seen since the Space Shuttle and Apollo days. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy wasn’t just igniting kerosene and oxygen, but also public interest in spaceflight. What a refreshing change and a relief from the constant effluvium coming from Washington these days, if even for just a day.
Showmanship gave way to just showing off when two of three boosters landed back in Cape Canaveral within seconds of each other. It looked like one of those North Korean multiple missile launches in reverse. The fate of the core booster, which was supposed to land on a barge at sea, remained unknown Tuesday evening. So as of yesterday, SpaceX has landed 23 boosters and reused six in a total of 49 launches. All but three were successful launches. Not a bad record for an upstart space company, I’d say.
In a gust of either false modesty or tongue-in-geek rocket humor, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk—an immigrant by the way—sought to reduce expectations last week when he said he would be happy if the Falcon Heavy cleared the tower before blowing up and not damaging historic Pad 39A, from whence man landed on the moon. It obviously did far better and it puts SpaceX ahead of other private launch companies in terms of launch cadence, at least those that aren’t established aerospace giants. And it now owns the heavy lift market as other companies tilt toward the light, low-earth-orbit satellite market. Suddenly, not just Mars is in play, but more complex missions of heavier payloads to low earth orbit and the Moon.
Some of the press coverage seemed to suggest that the Falcon Heavy kicks open the door to Musk’s plan to colonize Mars. Maybe, but I’m just not buying that dream. A Mars exploratory mission is difficult enough; living there just seems daft to me. But then some people said the Falcon Heavy was beyond the reach of private company development. So much for that conventional wisdom.
Launching the Tesla Roadster into space strikes some people as wasteful, self-centered and just silly. But I think it’s just a giggle, and a cosmic one at that. Anyone who’s seriously sniffed at the idea maybe ought to start their own rocket company or, easier, just get over it.