Feb 06 2018

The Falcon Heavy Takes Flight

It happened. Today was the day the Falcon Heavy, now the most powerful rocket system in operation, made its maiden flight.

Many expected it to fail, even the man behind SpaceX, Elon Musk. Hell, in some ways I was more optimistic than others – including Musk – in feeling that the vehicle probably would launch successfully. I had doubts over the recovery of the boosters, as it seemed quite the challenge to land 3 of them together, but that was the worst I expected.

Turns out I wasn’t far off in my prediction as to what actually happened.

After delays due to upper atmospheric winds, the countdown began towards the end of the launch window. From the point the live stream began, however, there were no issues, and the vehicle launched successfully.

I watched it, of course – as much of an issue as I have with many aspects of SpaceX and the space community currently, I would not pass up a chance to see a machine like this do its thing. Sadly, my experience had to be ruined (much like my experience of the Orion launch back in December 2014 was) by a livestream that stuttered constantly and was in oddly low quality. I blame YouTube fully as a re-broadcast of the stream worked fine for me, albeit incredibly delayed compared to the primary one.

Whatever case, I watched the vehicle fly, and didn’t know what to think, what to expect, what to hope for.  I just wanted to see the reality of it, and that I did.

Instead of an operational payload, this Falcon Heavy Test Flight contained what has to be the most absurd payload ever launched, a Tesla Roadster. At least, that’s what was stated in the time leading up to the launch – just beforehand we learned it was also going to carry one of the new space suits designed by SpaceX for future crew missions. Named “Starman” he’s sitting in the driver side of the car, right now, drifting away from Earth getting ready to orbit the Sun between Earth and Mars for the next, oh, few billion years, pending gravitational effects and the like over time.

At first I thought this was stupid – and in some ways I still do, as it’s clearly just a publicity stunt – but on the same page, a test launch like this needs something to simulate the mass of a possible payload, and why not do something crazy? Once I saw it flying, I grew to like it. Once fairing separation happened, all I could do was grin as Space Oddity played and the dash on the Tesla Roadster was shown with a message saying “DON’T PANIC.”

The child in me, I guess, just had the time of his life. For that moment I forgot all about the cult of SpaceX, the hostility of the fans, the absurd proposals for super-massive rockets, and just enjoyed the fact of what was going on. It’s absurd, but ya know what? It was fun, too. I finally understood it as I should have to begin with – it’s crazy for the sake of being crazy, but seeing “DON’T PANIC” I think was the thing that did it – that caused me to just relax, and I’m glad it did. I feel better having watched this happen and, in the end, I think this might well have, in a strange way, helped me get past a slump I’ve been in the past year regarding space news.. but that’s another story.

There was one last step, though, to this mission – landing the boosters. Yep, all 3 of the core stage boosters were intended to land, 2 back at Cape Canaveral and one, the core booster, back on the drone ship.

We watched as staging happened and the boosters began their return, just like previous Falcon 9 missions. Sure enough, they came down, dropped their legs together and landed. It was strange to see 2 of them doing this at once, but hell, they did.

Of course, that’s what they are built to do, and as I have already expressed elsewhere, the actual physics behind them landing isn’t all that special – it just took getting systems right, really.

The core stage booster, though, was another experience – as it approached the drone ship, video went out, as tends to happen then… nothing. No word.

As Starman continued to drift, many of us wondered just what had happened to the core stage. I was almost certain it had failed to land, but without confirmation I of course wasn’t going to say such beyond it looking likely.

Several hours after the launch, SpaceX did somewhat quietly confirm the booster did not make a successful landing, and actually failed in a way that I had just recently realized might just be a case – failure to re-ignite an engine for the landing burn.

That, however, is an article for tomorrow… and here that article is:


Today, all I have to say is, good job SpaceX.

Now, can’t wait to see ULA’s Vulcan, NASA’s SLS, or Blue Origin’s New Glenn get off the ground. The next few years are going to be very interesting…


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