SpaceX Does A Hat Trick (Less One)

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“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.

Comments (21)

Puttting a Tesla on top was brilliant on many levels. Why build a boring boilerplate spacecraft? Or 'balance ballast'? Or similar technically correct but excruciatingly boring polysyllabic engineering description of static equipment?

As I read just recently, a good leader blurs the distinction between work and play. Everybody at SpaceX probably had a lot more 'fun' at 'work' knowing they were going to launch a freakin' car into solar orbit.

And it got the public interested in space again. As Walt Disney put it, laughter is no enemy of learning. Trying new things, pushing the envelope, exploring new worlds, is serious, dangerous, business. But it doesn't mean there's no room for a bit of fun in the right place..

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | February 6, 2018 8:18 PM    Report this comment

I was working away on my laptop with the Science channel on but muted. I looked up and saw that they had switched to the SpaceX video stream and freaked out. I, too, let time run away from me. I ran outside to see if I could see anything but couldn't so I ran back in to finish watching.

The normally cynical Larry was in awe of the whole thing. I'd even admit to getting a bit teary over the thought of what a small Company started in 2002 had pulled off. Watching stereo rockets landing right on their assigned pads was like watching Buster Crabbe landing his fake rocket ship with sparklers simulating engines on a sandy place on a distant planet when I was a young kid in the 50's. The added touch of a Tesla roadster with SpaceMan headed to Mars is an incredible touch of genius. UNBELIEVABLE! WOW !! Great job, SpaceX. And -- for me -- an added bonus is watching a hoard of millennial looking types out in California cheering. Maybe there IS still hope?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 6, 2018 9:03 PM    Report this comment

Good PR. There is hope. Is Musk a DACA?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 6, 2018 9:23 PM    Report this comment

The NASA-run space projects were run so that every American felt welcomed and included. Complete, across-the-board, shared national pride. Very powerful. These feel like they are for entertainment purposes more than anything else. Paul, I forgot about it too. I wonder why?

Posted by: Ken Keen | February 6, 2018 10:00 PM    Report this comment

Paul--Yeah-Mr Musk may launch anything into space that he damned well pleases, and if he chooses to launch his unwashed underwear into space on Falcon Heavy inside a container bearing the inscription, "A gift from mankind," then there is still the main point that the flight COULD be made. I doubt that Musk's choice of the payload was all that whimsical. There is a deep contemporary symbolism to the playback of Starman driving his roadster into space while looking back at Earth with one arm casually propped on the window sill, taking in the view of where he had come from.

So Mr Musk came from South Africa to the New Land of Can't Do, Too Expensive, Cost Ineffective, It'll Never Work, and Environmental Impact, and did it anyway. We've always had a bad habit here of just making one of THEM one of US, and may we always continue to do so.

Posted by: William McIntosh | February 7, 2018 2:49 AM    Report this comment

I do not know why these amazing accomplishments can't be done in other free-market countries... - hell, we're pretty much all the same. For some strange reason(s) these amazing feats continue here, and no president or silly politics can stop them. So we Americans must be doing something right. What it is? I do not know. Just hoping it continues...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | February 7, 2018 7:11 AM    Report this comment

"Launching the Tesla Roadster into space strikes some people as wasteful, self-centered and just silly."

I thought about that (launching a roadster into space), and realized that if I had the money Musk has, and accomplished what he has (building a rocket only eclipsed in performance by the Saturn V, built with the backing of the entire US government), I too would have launched something like he did into space, because why not. And I think that is really what has the complainers all complaining about: that they couldn't do that themselves. Not all science has to be boring.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 7, 2018 7:35 AM    Report this comment

That putting a car in orbit to last a billion years, is right out of Mal Brooks Space Cowboys. I guess when you are a rich boy and can get all the girls and everything else you start putting cars in Space... I truly don't care.
The important thing is that with that big fat rocket big projects can really get going. Its a race though, there are plenty of lunatics (Mmmm) trying to destroy all of humanity so can we get off this rock before they kill us all or we are doomed to almost get there but fall short (Mmmm).

Posted by: Max Mason | February 7, 2018 8:13 AM    Report this comment

The fault, dear Max, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | February 7, 2018 8:26 AM    Report this comment

Elon Musk--a LEGAL immigrant by the way.
I fixed it for ya.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 7, 2018 8:41 AM    Report this comment

Thank you, Mark Fraser. Took the words right out of my mouth - errrrr - fingertips.

Posted by: Mike Massimini | February 7, 2018 8:55 AM    Report this comment

Musk, a legal immigrant: "In my case I had to (attend college), otherwise I'd get kicked out of the country. So, that was important. I came out to Silicon Valley to do a PhD at Stanford, in applied physics and material science to work on ultracapacitors for use in electric cars. And that's what I was going to do, and then I decided to put that on hold to start a company. But since I already had my undergrad, I could then get a H-1B visa and that kinda thing. So the H-1B visa requires a degree. But other than that, if that wasn't the case, I probably would've stopped education sooner.

Musk moved to California in 1995, and in 2002 he officially became an American citizen:
Ten years ago -- ten years after his arrival in the New World -- Elon Musk took the oath of American citizenship with thirty-five hundred other immigrants at the Pomona Fairplex, in a ceremony he calls "actually very moving." Snorpes - Fact check.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 7, 2018 9:29 AM    Report this comment

To tie this to a related AVwebFlash article: SpaceX has set the bar pretty high for the 2018 Collier Trophy.

Posted by: Chip Davis | February 7, 2018 10:23 AM    Report this comment

Hm. Dumb. Mr. Musk could have made this into a revenue run.
We have a car manufacturer called Volkswagen here in Good Old Germany and a bunch of owners would have paid cash to shoot their TDI's into outer space, together with some Volkswagen senior Managers... :-))))

Posted by: Jason Baker | February 7, 2018 10:48 AM    Report this comment

Kudos to Mr. Musk who emigrated the legal way and has accomplished so much since then.
FYI, he is building his new spaceport on Boca Chica beach which is directly on the Texas-Mexican border, check it out...

Posted by: A Richie | February 7, 2018 12:51 PM    Report this comment

Ahh, Boca Chica Raketenflugplatz. Von Braun would have liked this.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 7, 2018 7:12 PM    Report this comment

Congratulations to all of the people who put in the blood sweat and tears to make it happen. Great team. Having worked in the business for may years, I know the magnitude of the success. Watching live, brought back some very interesting flash backs of previous launches. Those were challenging and interesting days.

I may not be a fan of Elon, but he has pulled it off, built the team and with more than a little $ help from the US tax payer become a major player. The fact remains that he and his team did it. We will all benefit from this effort. Well done team Space X.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | February 7, 2018 7:22 PM    Report this comment

Elon Musk must be related to P.T. Barnum; he's a heck of a showman. In the days leading up to the launch he hyped the drama by announcing he gave the attempt even odds of blowing up on the pad. Then the image of the Starman floating through space in a red roadster sparks the imagination of a whole new generation of space enthusiasts. But, it's much more than show. Turns out the space suit Starman is wearing is an actual version of SpaceX's new design and this is a test of its performance under real conditions as per NASA requirements. While the car and Starman may seem frivolous to some, it accomplishes necessary testing in a dramatic way that holds the public's attention and shows potential SpaceX customers he can deliver the goods.

A successful launch, free advertising and checking off the boxes for the Feds. I'd say he did a hat trick for sure.

Posted by: John McNamee | February 8, 2018 1:31 AM    Report this comment

So, let's have more paths to immigration for people who get stuff done.

Instead of shutting them down, which is what's been happening. There's a very good chance Musk couldn't get his H-1B today (it's become a lottery with a low probability of success, even for qualified applicants), and the President and congressional leaders are talking about reducing, not increasing the number of legal immigrants - no matter how skilled.

And this "must have a degree" thing is ridiculous. If you can earn a high income, or create a business, and keep it up for, say, five years, enough said.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | February 8, 2018 7:13 AM    Report this comment

Tesla the genius inventor motivating Musk the educated exceptionally gifted businessman. Musk for EAA president. Save GA!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 8, 2018 9:27 AM    Report this comment

I've been reviewing the Falcon Heavy videos. The thrill is there. Amazing.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 8, 2018 10:56 AM    Report this comment

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