KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — SpaceX paved the way for its goal of human spaceflight to Mars on Tuesday with its launch of the Falcon Heavy — the most powerful rocket in the world — as thousands of spectators turned out on a scale the Space Coast hasn’t seen since the space shuttle era.
Many who watched said they were thrilled to see history happen in Florida.
“This is America, this is who we are. It just made history,” said Aida Hart, of Enterprise, watching from her sister-in-law’s lawn. She whooped with excitement as cheers erupted up and down Riverside Drive in Titusville next to the Indian River at liftoff, as the boosters separated and returned to the spaceport like falling torches.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk carried an excitement that was clear on social media, posting a handful of images to Twitter and Instagram in the hours after the launch. Some, including a live video feed, depicted the rocket’s payload — a redTesla Roadster with a mannequin dubbed Starman in a space helmet at the wheel — moving toward Mars.
Musk said the successful launch seems surreal. “I had this image of a giant explosion on the pad with a wheel bouncing down the road, Tesla logo landing somewhere,” he said. “But fortunately, that’s not what happened.”
The boosters’ landing “was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.”
The success gives SpaceX a foot in the heavy-payload arena of spaceflight. Its only competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, most recently flew in June 2016. Musk aims for SpaceX to achieve history by carrying humans to Mars.
“It teaches me that crazy things can come true. I really didn’t think this could work,” Musk said — and at one point, he revealed SpaceX considered canceling the program three times.
“ … I’ve seen rockets blow up in so many different ways. So it’s a big relief when it actually works.”
At 3:45 p.m., Falcon Heavy — essentially comprised of three of the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rockets strapped together side-by-side-by-side — lifted off from Launch Pad 39A. The high-powered rocket set off a loud rumbling in the region as spectators who paid to be at Kennedy Space Center’s visitors complex and others who jammed parks and causeways cheered and clapped.
Minutes later, two rapid-fire, twin sonic booms signaled two of the rocket boosters’ approach to Cape Canaveral for landing. They set down vertically in unison.
The third rocket booster failed to land on the company’s sea barge as intended, crashing into the ocean at 300 mph. But that did little to affect the joyous mood seen by SpaceX staffers during the launch on the company’s livestream.
Restaurant owner Sachin Shenoy hopes SpaceX plans more Falcon Heavy launches soon, with humans instead of crash dummies.
“This was one of the best launches we’ve had. We were surprised,” said Shenoy, who opened Orléans Bistro in 2015 with an outdoor deck that offers views of launches from South Washington Avenue in Titusville.
He had to call in extra staff.
“Since they stopped manned launches, it hasn’t been that busy,” said Shenoy, 51. “If they send people up, people bring people.”
Dale Ketcham, chief of strategic alliance for Space Florida, said SpaceX has proven its launch technology on a higher level now and its dominance of the launch industry. He said it will be interesting to see what SpaceX does with that dominance.
“Competition within the space industry, and the government, just became much more fierce.” Ketcham said.
The Falcon Heavy is capable of lifting as much as 141,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Its lift capability will compete with United Launch Alliance, which had been essentially an exclusive government launch partner in recent years.
Musk said during a pre-launch conference that the Falcon Heavy’s successful launch would be “game over” for other companies.
“It’ll be like trying to sell aircraft where one had reusable components and the other is single use,” he said.
Erik Seedhouse, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor who has written about SpaceX’s efforts to commercialize the industry, said the successful launch will change the commercial space race.
“The Falcon Heavy signals America’s return to longer duration spaceflights in a significant way,” he said, noting that heavy lift rockets will be essential to eventually reach Mars.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a former astronaut, said the launch marked a high point for the coast.
“The largest rocket since the moon program, the Saturn V, launched from the Kennedy Space Center today,” Nelson said. “ … That’s good news for the civil space program. It’s good news for national security. It’s good news for employment in the U.S., and it’s great news for jobs and the economy,” Nelson said.
Back on Riverside Drive, Heather Loyd had left work to watch the launch with her children and neighbors on her front lawn.
“It’s awesome to live in a place where you can see history. It’s great to see so many people out watching,” Loyd said.
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