SpaceX Launches The Falcon Heavy with Sports Car on Top

“They nailed it. Good for them.” - former NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — 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.

The Falcon Heavy rose from the same launch pad used by NASA nearly 50 years ago to send men to the moon. With liftoff, the Heavy became the most powerful rocket in use today, doubling the liftoff punch of its closest competitor.

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 car maker 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.

The Heavy is intended for massive satellites, like those used by the U.S. military and major-league communication companies. Even before the test flight, customers were signed up.

“It was awesome like a science fiction movie coming to reality,” said former NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman, MIT’s Apollo professor of astronautics. “They nailed it. Good for them.”

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.

If it weathers all this, the Roadster will reach the vicinity of Mars in six months, Musk said. The car could be traveling between Earth and Mars’ neighborhoods for a billion years, according to the high-tech billionaire.

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.

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.

SpaceX has decided against flying passengers on the Heavy, Musk told reporters Monday, and instead will accelerate development of an even bigger rocket to accommodate deep-space crews. His ultimate goal is to establish a city on Mars.

“If people think we’re in a race with the Chinese, this is our secret weapon: the entrepreneurship of people like Elon and others like Jeff Bezos,” said Stanford University G. Scott Hubbard, NASA’s first Mars czar. Amazon’s Bezos heads Blue Origin, which is developing a big, reusable orbital-class rocket.

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A mannequin “Starman” sits at the wheel of a Tesla Roadster in this photo posted on the Instagram account of Elon Musk, head of auto company Tesla and founder of the private space company SpaceX. The car is on board SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, which launched from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. today, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. (Courtesy of Elon Musk/Instagram via AP)