By Christian Davenport and Aaron Gregg
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX successfully launched what is now the world's most powerful rocket Tuesday, a towering behemoth known as the Falcon Heavy that tore through the sky with the thundering force of 18 747 jetliners.
Lifting off from the same launchpad that sent the crew of Apollo 11 to the moon, the rocket sent up a mountain-sized plume of smoke and a rattling roar across Florida's Space Coast, where thousands gathered to watch. The mission represented the first test of the massive rocket, powered by 27 engines in three boosters that are essentially strapped together.
The maiden flight also marked the first time a privately financed rocket ever attempted to boost a payload out of Earth's orbit. As a promotional stunt, SpaceX founder Elon Musk loaded the Falcon Heavy with his own cherry red Tesla Roadster carrying a spacesuit-clad mannequin in the driver's seat. He said he planned to send the convertible, built by another one of his companies, into an orbit that would take it near Mars.
It was a beautiful day for a launch. Clear blue skies. A slight breeze. Warm weather that attracted space fans by the thousands who lined the beaches and causeways in anticipation.
"You can feel the energy," said Dale Ketcham, an executive at Space Florida, which seeks to boost the state's aerospace industry. "It's been a long time since we had so much enthusiasm. And everyone and their brother is trying to remember whatever favor they might have done for us to get a pass."
If SpaceX can fly the Falcon Heavy reliably, the rocket could prove useful to the Pentagon for lifting national security satellites, and for NASA's human exploration goals. SpaceX says the rocket is capable of hauling more mass farther than any existing rocket - an estimated 140,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, and nearly 40,000 pounds to Mars.
But industry officials say there are some concerns about how big the market is for the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX had been planning to fly a pair of tourists around the moon as early as this year. But on Monday, Musk announced a reversal, saying the Falcon Heavy likely would never fly humans, as the company shifts its focus to its next-generation rocket, known as the "BFR," or "Big Falcon Rocket."
Still, the Falcon Heavy's successful launch represents a "revival of the exploring spirit," said John Logsdon, a space historian who is a professor emeritus at George Washington University.
Ever since NASA ended the space shuttle program in 2011, missions have been limited to what's known as low-Earth orbit, where the International Space Station flies at about 250 miles above the surface of the earth.
But the Falcon Heavy represents a chance to go beyond that, into deep space, to really "push the frontier," Logsdon said. "This really gives us a capability that this country has not had since the last Saturn V flight, which was in 1973."
The Apollo-era rockets were more powerful than the Falcon Heavy but they are no longer in use. The Falcon Heavy is one of a series of large rockets that are under development and set to launch in the next few years. The United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is developing its Vulcan rocket. Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is building a massive rocket called New Glenn after former astronaut John Glenn. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
SpaceX's launch comes as the Trump administration is focused on returning to the moon. While it has not released details of how or at what the effort cost, officials support having NASA do so in partnership with commercial companies such as SpaceX, which are striving to make space travel far more affordable than it has been in the past.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a member of the reconstituted National Space Council, was on hand Tuesday to view the launch. In an interview, he lauded SpaceX's efforts in bring back to the United States a large portion of the world marketshare for launches. And he said that one of the council's top priorities is "how to accelerate the progress of the commercialization of space. We're moving quite aggressively to try to accomplish that."
SpaceX's successful launch raises questions for NASA about how best to proceed. For years, the space agency has been working to develop the Space Launch System, an even more powerful rocket than the Falcon Heavy, but at about $1 billion per launch, it is many times more expensive. Ross said there was room for both systems.
"Space is a big, big thing," he said.