When you’ve been born in the very late eighties, it’s sometimes fair to feel a little bit cheated. I have no recollection of the Berlin wall coming down. Ray Houghton put the ball in the back of the English net on the day I was christened; again, no recollection of that event either. But they were close calls. I was around for them, but just too young to remember. Space exploration on the other hand, well I missed the best years which saw the likes of Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and utter famous words which to this day make the hair on my neck stand up.
Tonight, I watched SpaceX test a rocket. No humans were onboard. It all took little over ten minutes. Yet, I know I’ve just watched something on par with those great historical events that I’ve missed so far; the testing of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
What is SpaceX?
First of all, it’s not just “space” with the coolest letter of the alphabet stuck onto it. SpaceX is short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. As you might imagine, SpaceX is focused on getting people into space, but it does go a little further than that.
Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, founded the aerospace company to make leaving the earth’s atmosphere more affordable and accessible. His ultimate goal was to see SpaceX facilitate the colonisation of Mars; our Elon doesn’t think small. And if the man wasn’t inspirational enough, just check out this heart wrenching showing his reaction to criticism from his heroes – couldn’t be further from the supervillain that I predict he’ll become:
But how can Musk and SpaceX make space exploration more affordable? It’s really simple: you reuse the rockets, duh.
When SpaceX rockets take off, they aren’t just jettisoned into space, oh no. Those damn things land. Watching the recent test flight of Falcon Heavy, the company’s largest rocket to date, I fell in love with SpaceX.
What is the Falcon Heavy Rocket?
Originally due to launch in 2013, the Falcon Heavy just made its maiden voyage. The Falcon Heavy design consists of two engines and a fuselage. The rocket’s design allows it to lift almost three times more than previous SpaceX rockets, nicely compared by the BBC below:
The maiden Falcon Heavy mission was not without bucket-loads of drama. The goal was to launch and return everything, minus an interesting payload, to earth. This meant that for the first time ever, two boosters and the core would need to return to earth in a single mission. Of course, knowing Elon Musk was involved meant there would be some extra sprinkles of fun on the mission too.
The boosters provided what was most certainly the most exciting moment of the whole mission. Following a successful separation from the core and their initial lift duties are done, the two identical boosters began their journey home. Remember, SpaceX is all about making this craic sustainable and affordable so these things needed to land safely back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Madness.
As mad a thought as it is, nothing prepared me for actually seeing these two incredibly powerful pieces of engineering land in perfect sync together. Dare I say it, I was bloody moved by it all:
It's easy to let space launches pass you by as uninteresting, but when I saw those two @SpaceX #FalconHeavy boosters land in perfect sync, I realised @elonmusk and screw it, humanity, achieved something astonishing. That was epic. pic.twitter.com/IQIOXhz5gd
— Martin Meany (@martinmeany) February 6, 2018
I was not alone. Everyone was caught off guard by how incredible a moment this was and to be fair, the landing really was a thing of beauty.
While the boosters absolutely take the title of the most exciting part of the mission, the core maintains the most nail-biting aspect of the Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage. The core, which held the mission payload and sat between the two booster engines has yet to be recovered. Speculation on Twitter so far suggests many believe the core has been lost following SpaceX ending their broadcast shortly after the two boosters successfully touched down.
In 2017, Musk said the Falcon Heavy mission’s test payload would be the silliest thing he could think of:
Silliest thing we can imagine! Secret payload of 1st Dragon flight was a giant wheel of cheese. Inspired by a friend & Monty Python.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 31, 2017
So, when Musk drove to The Kennedy Space Center in his red Tesla Roadster, he would also be saying goodbye to that motor. Right now, that car is hurtling towards mars with a Tesla Spacesuit manning the driver’s seat, listening to Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” on infinite loop.
That payload is still due to two burns over the next few hours to ensure it’s on a trajectory which will see it grabbed by pulls directing it towards Mars. Musk’s motor is going to have some serious mileage on it, but if the mission does fail and the Roadster finds its way back to earth, it’ll just be burning up in our atmosphere.
Still, if he has third party, fire and theft, he might just be covered.
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