- SpaceX has launched Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket the company has ever built.
- After its launch, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, called for “a new space race.”
- Falcon Heavy’s cost of $US90 million a launch, made possible by reusable rockets, will vastly undercut SpaceX’s competitors.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – Just hours after SpaceX thundered its first Falcon Heavy rocket into space and showed off its launch system as the most powerful of its kind on Tuesday, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, called for a new space race.
“I think it’s going to open up a sense of possibility,” Musk said of his freshly demonstrated 23-story launcher. “We want a new space race. Space races are exciting.”
SpaceX’s behemoth rocket pushed off Launchpad 39A here at Kennedy Space Center at 3:45 p.m. ET. The payload, which is now on its way to Mars orbit, was Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster outfitted with a dummy wearing a flight-grade spacesuit. The car broadcast incredible views of Earth for several hours as it slowly tumbled through space.
But the main attraction of Falcon Heavy was arguably its three 16-story reusable boosters, the force behind Musk’s call for renewed competition in space.
Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters detached from the rocket a few minutes after launch, fell back toward Earth with a sonic boom, and landed on the ground at Cape Canaveral for potential use in a future launch. The central booster did not successfully land, though, and instead smacked into the Atlantic Ocean at 300 mph.
But in a launch market where throwing all rocket parts away after one launch is the norm, SpaceX is poised to quickly recoup its sizable investment in Falcon Heavy.
“I think it’s going to encourage other companies and countries to say, ‘Hey, if SpaceX, which is a commercial company, and it can do this, and nobody paid for Falcon Heavy, it was paid with internal funds,’ then they could do it, too,” he told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday night. “So I think it’s going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say, ‘We can do bigger and better,’ which is great.”
‘It can do anything you want’
Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s first heavy-lift rocket, and it’s expected to cost about $US90 million a launch. This is about one-third the cost of a similarly capable rocket, though it could be less than one-tenth as expensive as SpaceX’s competitors retire their heavy-lift launchers.
That doesn’t mean Falcon Heavy, which was supposed to make its debut five years earlier, came cheap or without any strife.
“Our investment to date is probably a lot more than I’d like to admit,” Musk said, later guessing the total to be “over half a billion, probably more.”
He added: “We tried to cancel the Falcon Heavy program three times at SpaceX. Because it was like, ‘Man, this is way harder than we thought.’ The initial idea was just, you stick on two first stages as side boosters – how hard can it be? Way hard.”
But with Falcon Heavy planned to start launching customer payloads later this year, perhaps once every three to six months, Musk has implied it could be “game over” for poor competition while inspiring new competitors to step forward.
“Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload,” Musk said. “It can launch more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world, so it’s kind of up to customers what they might want to launch.”
He added that Falcon Heavy could “launch things direct to Pluto and beyond, no stop needed,” as well as giant satellites.
“It can do anything you want,” Musk said. “You could send people back to the moon if you did a bunch of launches with Falcon Heavy and did an orbital refilling. Two or three Falcon Heavys would equal the payload of a Saturn V.” (The rocket system that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon.)
Musk isn’t the only billionaire tech mogul with lunar and reusable-rocket ambitions.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and his rocket company, Blue Origin, recently opened a gigantic facility at Kennedy Space Center to build the New Glenn reusable rocket system. In a tweet posted Tuesday night, Bezos congratulated Musk on the launch with a “Woohoo!”
“I’m just curious if you see yourself in a race with Blue Origin,” Tim Fernholz at Quartz asked Musk during the press conference.
Musk played coy, smiled, and responded: “What was the first part of the question?”