On February 6, 2018, at 2045 UTC, the first Falcon Heavy was launched into space. It contained a very special payload- a Tesla Roadster with Starman. Why was this the payload? This launch was considered extremely risky. According to Elon Musk, there was a 50- 50 chance of success on the first launch. No one wanted to risk a multi-million dollar payload with something that had such a high chance of failure.
That being said, there is a mechanism in place for deciding what to send with such a risky mission. That is, send a dummy payload. A dummy payload is simply one that doesn’t cost very much. There are a large variety of such payloads. Antares launched a Cynus mockup. Falcon 9 launched a Dragon qualification unit. Other payloads have included concrete blocks, tanks of water, and highly experimental spacecraft. Dragon 2 isn’t quite ready for a test flight, and thus SpaceX didn’t have any test equipment to bring on the voyage. So what were they to do?
The first clue about the payload came from Elon Musk was a tweet:
Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 2, 2017
I didn’t really believe it, especially as he seemed to back out of it a few times. Elon is known to pull pranks via Twitter. But then came these photos, and I knew it was true.
The day of the launch approached, and one last surprise was in play. The car would have a driver, named Starman. This one caught me off guard, although it is so perfect.
The day of the launch, I was surrounded by a bunch of engineers. During the launch, I had a mental timeline of what was happening, and was narrating. I watched the smoke come out for a whole slow 5 seconds before it lifted off. And I thought, wow, it’s off the ground! As there were 2.3 million viewers, the second most in YouTube history, the stream was a bit slow. But I continued to count off the milestones as they passed. The first one happened at about T+25 seconds, where I had calculated it would be far enough from the Launch Pad to not blow it up. I then continued to mark the milestones, each successful, until the two booster landed simultaneously. The final one, of the center core landing, of course was left as a mystery.
I then proceeded to await news for the other 2 burns that were planned, which were not aired. Falcon Heavy did do a few test items, the most notable being a burn after coasting for 6 hours. The 6 hour timeline is significant because it allows for a direct to Geostationary orbit to be performed, which the military desires. This allows SpaceX to compete for all US military contracts.
I will leave you with this amazing video that wraps up the whole launch campaign beautifully. I have watched it more than once, and not regretted doing so at all.