More than three years ago SpaceX created a dramatic animation visualizing the launch of its Falcon Heavy experimental rocket, and the return journey of its booster rockets. Earlier this week, it released a second animation, this time using as its soundtrack David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” Then, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, with just a few low clouds at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the world got to see the real thing.
In this relentlessly depressing 2018 news cycle, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk’s initial forays into space travel brought smiles to many.
SpaceX had called its original Falcon 9 “the first rocket completely developed in the 21st century,” and it was used to send the company’s Dragon spacecraft for a visit to the International Space Station in 2012 — the first such visit for a commercial space company. Later missions delivered (or retrieved) NASA cargo from the space station.
“At SpaceX our primary goal is to enable people to live on other planets — most noticeably, Mars,” says Michael Hammersley, a SpaceX materials engineer.
SpaceX combined three Falcon 9 engine cores into the Falcon Heavy, which has the power to lift over 64 metric tons (141,000 pounds) into space — roughly 2.65 times as much as the Space Shuttle. At lift-off it generated over 5 million pounds of thrust — “approximately eighteen 747 aircraft at full power.” SpaceX says it’s twice as powerful as any operational rocket on earth.
“Today is the day that we attempt to demonstrate that power,” said Lauren Lyons, SpaceX flight reliability engineer, on the day of the launch.
Not only was the power demonstrated on takeoff, the spacecraft then successfully landed two of its booster rockets. One of the key components of the SpaceX program is re-usable rockets. The booster rockets, only necessary to get the payload into outer space, can be reused. In fact, they’ve already been used in earlier missions.
View from SpaceX Launch Control. Apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth. pic.twitter.com/QljN2VnL1O
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 6, 2018
The name Falcon Heavy is a nod to Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon. And SpaceX hopes to follow it with an even bigger rocket called the BFR, which roughly translates to “Big Freakin’ Rocket.” This is thought to be a nod to the BFG in the game Quake, which is the biggest gun and only attainable at the highest level of play.
Perhaps what was most discussed about the launch, however, was the payload: a Tesla Roadster filled with scientific data-gathering equipment. Rumor has it there’s a towel in the glove compartment, plus a copy of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (that book’s key phrase, “Don’t Panic,” is displayed prominently on the dashboard). The names of 6,000 SpaceX employees were engraved on a plaque mounted on the fitting attaching the roadster to the second stage.
In addition, the payload included a 5D laser optical data storage device — one that can survive in space. It was built by the Arch Mission Foundation, a non-profit also inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which hopes to “continuously preserve and disseminate humanity’s most important knowledge across time and space.” And stored on the device is a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.
Its devices will last billions of years, according to the organization’s web site — billions of years longer than the pyramids, possibly even longer than earth. An initial blog post described the project as “a planetary insurance policy — a backup of our most important knowledge. It can evolve over time into a solar system wide area storage network for storing and accessing data in orbital and locations.”
Some took it as a cheesy commercial ploy to market one of Musk’s other businesses, the Tesla electric car company, though others enjoyed the absurdity of it all.
“We have big TV screens on the walls at work to display software build stats and test results,” Earl Ruby, a manager at Apcera, posted on Facebook. “Today at noon I switched one over to the live stream of the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and a whole group of people came by to watch. It was surreal watching the rocket launch a red Tesla convertible — with a dummy in a space suit at the wheel and David Bowie on the car stereo — headed for orbit around Mars.”
“I am living in the future,” Ruby said, adding “I like it here.”
And on Wednesday morning, Musk shared one more photo: The Starman in Roadster enroute to Mars orbit and then the Asteroid Belt.
Or, in the words of David Bowie …
“There’s a star man waiting in the sky.
He’s told us not to blow it,
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”
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