SpaceX's big new rocket blasted off Tuesday on its first test flight, carrying a red sports car aiming for an endless road trip past Mars.
“This is Elon Musk, he’s like the Iron Man of space, he does whatever he wants,” said Francis French, director of education for the San Diego Air & Space Museum. “He’s taking his cherry-red convertible Tesla, stuck it on top of this rocket with a space-suited mannequin inside and David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' playing on the stereo."
The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy makes it the most powerful rocket operating today, able to lift 140,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit.
It was a big day for southern California workers because the rocket was developed in Hawthorne, California.
The three boosters and 27 engines roared to life at Kennedy Space Center, as thousands watched from surrounding beaches, bridges and roads, jamming the highways in scenes unmatched since NASA's last space shuttle flight. At SpaceX Mission Control in Southern California, employees screamed, whistled and raised pumped fists into the air as the launch commentators called off each milestone.
“As a person who was fascinated by the rocket launch to the moon and man walking on the moon, it’s been a really long time since we had anything this exciting,” said Maggie Halowell of San Diego. “I root for SpaceX.”
Two of the boosters— both recycled from previous launches — returned minutes later for simultaneous, side-by-side touchdowns at Cape Canaveral. Sonic booms rumbled across the region with the vertical landings. There was no immediate word on whether the third booster, brand new, made it onto the ocean platform 300 miles offshore.
SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk owns the rocketing Tesla Roadster, which is shooting for a solar orbit that will reach all the way to Mars. As head of the electric carmaker Tesla, he combined his passions to add a dramatic flair to the Heavy's long-awaited inaugural flight. Typical ballast for a rocket debut is usually concrete or steel slabs, or experiments.
“It can take about six months to get out to where Mars is,” said French. “It’s a long way away. This is going to be the furthest car that’s ever gone out of this planet’s orbit.”
Cameras fed stunning live video of the convertible floating high above the ocean with its driver, a space-suited dummy, named "Starman" after the Davie Bowie song. A sign on the dashboard read: "Don't panic!" Bowie's "Life on Mars?" played in the background.
"View from SpaceX Launch Control," Musk wrote via Twitter. "Apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth."
The Falcon Heavy is a combination of three Falcon 9s, the rocket that the company uses to ship supplies to the International Space Station and lift satellites. SpaceX is reusing first-stage boosters to save on launch costs. Most other rocket makers discard their spent boosters in the ocean.
“This is an interesting time in the space business,” said French. “We’ve seen NASA step away a little bit more and use more of these private contractors.”
Given the high stakes and high drama, Tuesday's launch attracted huge crowds not seen since NASA's last space shuttle flight seven years ago. While the shuttles had more liftoff muscle than the Heavy, the all-time leaders in both size and might were NASA's Saturn V rockets, which first flew astronauts to the moon in 1968.
Not counting Apollo moon buggies, the Roadster is the first automobile to speed right off the planet.
The car faces considerable speed bumps before settling into its intended orbit around the sun, an oval circle stretching from the orbit of Earth on one end to the orbit of Mars on the other. It has to endure a cosmic bombardment during several hours of cruising through the highly charged Van Allen radiation belts encircling Earth. Finally, a thruster has to fire to put the car on the right orbital course.
Also on board in a protected storage unit is Isaac Asimov's science fiction series, "Foundation." A plaque also holds the names of the more than 6,000 SpaceX employees.
Unlike NASA launches, the funding of SpaceX launches and development are private, with no tax-payer money used.
The Heavy already is rattling the launch market. Its sticker price is $90 million, less than one-tenth the estimated cost of NASA's Space Launch System megarocket in development for moon and Mars expeditions.
Musk said his ultimate goal is to establish a city on Mars.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.