DemDaily: A Space Odyssey

February 7, 2018

Tuesday's historic space launch was a gleeful reminder of the possible, of things larger than our petty earthly political battles, of what it is like to be inspired again!

Space history was made yesterday as SpaceX, a groundbreaking technology company, successfully launched the Falcon Heavy, "the most powerful operational rocket in the world."

SpaceX, founded by billionarire Tesla CEO Elon Musk, designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

An estimated half million spectators watched live as the powerful heavy-lift space rocket took flight at 3:45pm ET from the National Air and Space Administration's (NASA) Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Exploration and Enterprise
The goal of SpaceX and other private spaceflight companies is utlimately one of interplanetary exploration and commercial enterprise. They are vying to work with NASA towards its mission of returning to the moon for the first time since 1972, and eventually landing humans on Mars before the middle of the century.

SpaceX drew worldwide fame In December of 2010 when, with its Falcon 9 rocket, it become the first private company to return a spacecraft to low-Earth orbit. In May of 2012, SpaceX became the first to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station - something that only government space agencies had previously accomplished.

The launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, a turbocharged version of the Falcon 9, marks another milestone - the first private company to send a rocket of this magnitude into space.

Risk and Rewards
Falcon Heavy is the most powerful heavy-lift rocket in the world by a factor of two, with the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb). Only the Saturn V moon rocket, flown almost 50 years ago, delivered more payload (cargo) to orbit.

Falcon Heavy's first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores, or booster rockets, whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff -- equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft.

The side boosters are connected to the center core at its base and at the vehicle's interstage. On yesterday's maiden flight both side boosters were recycled or "pre-flown" rockets and the third was new.

With new configurations, comes new risks. The SpaceX CEO gave the chances of a successful first flight only 50%. The rocket's 27 Merlin engines had to fire in unison and the two side mounted boosters need to separate from the core - something SpaceX had never done in flight. 

During the test flight only one of three engines on the center booster ignited during the landing, causing it to miss the droneship landing pad and fall into the Atlantic Ocean.  Falcon Heavy's two side boosters, however, successfully landed at their target zones at Cape Canaveral.

The site of the two rockets, which descended almost simultaneously and intact, sent cheers through the crowd and from the 3 million people at homes across the country who watched the company's livestream.

Game Changer
Prior to SpaceX's innovations, rockets were discarded after each mission. With the ability to safely return first-stage rocket boosters to Earth for reuse, SpaceX drives the cost of launches down considerably.

The cost of the Falcon Heavy launch was approximately $90 million, compared to $435 million for the launch of a Delta IV Heavy operated by the competing United Launch Alliance. The Falcon also possesses almost twice the cargo capacity.

Bowie for a Billion
In an effort "to send something unusual, something that made us feel," Musk made the on-board test payload his own $100,000 "midnight cherry" Tesla Roadster sports car. In the driver's seat is a dummy called "Starman," clad in a SpaceX uniform and rocking to David Bowie's "Space Oddity."

In Falcon Heavy's second stage the Roadster was launched into an Earth-Mars elliptical orbit around the sun - for more than a billion years.

On the successful completion of the flight and landing, Elon Musk said, "That was probably the most exciting thing I've ever seen -- literally ever."  We will count on it not being his last such experience.

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Kimberly Scott
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Sources: SpaceX, NASA, The Guardian, Washington Post, CNN

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