The Falcon Heavy successfully completed its maiden voyage on Tuesday, February 6, 2018. After achieving every major mission milestone and most of the secondary milestones, the launch sequence completed with Starman saying goodbye to the Earth with a final picture approximately 12 hours after launch. But this launch will not soon be forgotten as it has inspired countless people world wide and has stoked the passion for space travel for many.
With over 100,000 people in attendance on the Space Coast of Florida and about a half million people watching on the SpaceX YouTube feed, the Falcon Heavy roared to life at 3:45 pm local time from the now even more historic LC 39-A launch pad. The launch window initially opened at 1:30 pm local time; however upper level wind sheer levels were beyond acceptable limits for the experimental rocket.
After a number of delays, the wind sheer challenges were resolved and Elon Musk announced that the automatic launch sequence had begun, enabling propellant loading and leading up to the final launch sequence.
Once the pre-launch coverage had begun on the SpaceX YouTube feed, viewers were notified of the payload, which, as it turns out, was much more than just the Tesla Roadster and the mannequin in a functional SpaceX space suit. On the dashboard of the Roadster was a Hotwheels version of the Roadster with a tiny version of Starman inside.
In addition, secured inside the Roadster is a device called an “Arch”. The arch is a “5D laser optic quartz storage device”. The Arch Mission Foundation, which provided the arch for the launch has as its mission “to preserve and disseminate humanity’s most important information across time and space, for the benefit of future generations.” This mission is very much in line with Elon’s goal of preserving humanity by making human life multi-planetary and is similar to the concept of putting the golden records on the Voyager spacecraft. On this particular arch Isaac Asimov’s iconic science fiction series, The Foundation Trilogy.
Last, and absolutely not least, under the Roadster, attached to the payload adapter is a plaque that contains the names of over 6000 SpaceX employees.
The launch itself and insertion of the second stage into a parking orbit was a resounding success. Despite the fact that the center core did not manage to land on the drone ship at sea, the two outer cores performed an amazing bit of mid air choreography that resulted in the two cores making a synchronized approach and landing at Landing Zone 1.
However, the surprises and excitement did not end there as SpaceX revealed a second stream with live video of Starman and the Roadster from space.
This feed featured truly stunning vistas of the Earth from Starman’s point of view and from the side and front cameras attached to the car. This video also helped keep interest piqued as the second stage entered a coasting phase where it would loiter in the Van Allen belts for 6 hours before performing its third and final burn towards Mars.
The coast phase was vital for demonstrating to the US Air Force that the Falcon Heavy is capable of injecting payloads directly into very high geostationary orbits that are used for national security equipment. Prior to this launch, only ULA’s Delta IV Heavy had this capability.
Following the final burn, viewers had hoped for a lasting feed to watch Starman as the Earth grew ever smaller into the distance. Indeed, during the 6 hour wait before the final burn, the Earth was becoming visibly more and more distant, giving some viewers a small taste of the Overview Effect. However, a sustained feed was just not in the cards. The second stage of the Falcon series of rockets does not have solar panels on it and thus has no means to recharge its batteries. And so, 12 hours from launch, the batteries ran dry, but not before getting a final good bye from Starman.
While the Falcon Heavy test flight was unarguably a great success in its stated missions, it has achieved something even more important — it has people looking to the stars again.
In the days following the launch, numerous asteroid hunters and amateur astronomers looked to the sky to try to locate the Roadster. Using information provided by the Solar Systems Dynamics Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Tenegra Observatory in Arizona was able to capture the following image.
In addition, Jim Scotti, a SpaceX Facebook Enthusiast Group member captured the following two images using a 36 inch Spacewatch telescope.
But it’s not just through telescopes that Starman is having its affect. While some have criticized the Roadster payload as wasteful, it served a vital purpose by attracting attention that might not have been there for a simple block of concrete. In turn, the excitement has inspired both young and old alike, in a way that hasn’t really existed since the early days of the Space Shuttle.
And, of course, kids of all ages were intrigued by the idea of the roadster flying through space.
Moreover, others have taken this inspiration as motivation to focus on improving themselves so that they can contribute to humanity’s growth into Space.
“After being out of school for 25 years, I’ve decided to go to school and pursue a degree. Seeing the live feed of Starman and the Roadster made me want to do everything I can to help humanity colonize Mars…. SpaceX inspired me to improve my life” — S. F. Willis (emphasis added)
With this newfound passion and inspiration in place, what can be expected to keep that fire going in the weeks and months ahead? After all, there was plenty of excitement about the shuttle program at first with the promise of inexpensive flights to space and even a potential for space tourism. That excitement faded over the years and was replaced with a sort of jaded angst — something that was very evident in naysayer comments as SpaceX worked on landing their boosters.
Insomuch as SpaceX is concerned, 2018 is set to be an exciting year. There are two more launches scheduled for February (PAZ/SLC-4E/VAFB/Feb.17 and (Hispasat/SLC-40/Cape Canaveral/Feb.22) and up to three potentially scheduled for March, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) which will help identify Earth sized planets in other solar systems. Overall, SpaceX is planning on 30 launches this year, including possibly two more Falcon Heavy launches, meaning a launch every week or so can be expected.
However, just plain old satellites — even really cool telescopes — are not going to necessarily hold the attention of the public for very long. Fortunately, this year also heralds the launch of the Crew Dragon. Originally expected to launch in late spring, the first mission of the Crew Dragon, an unmanned demo flight, is now scheduled in August. The first manned flight is currently expected in December with an in-flight abort test occurring some time between the two.
Even more exciting is the potential of seeing the first tests of the BFS (Big Falcon Spaceship) next year. At the post launch conference, Elon mentioned that he was expecting to begin short hop tests of the space ship at some point next year, likely at the Boca Chica, TX facility. Realistically, this might not happen. Elon is famous for pursuing aggressive timelines, only to have repeated delays. Still, the idea of watching that massive spaceship launch and land is enticing.
Ultimately, though, as much as SpaceX and others have done to turn science fiction into science fact; we can’t just be spectators. Whether it is excitement about flying to the stars, exploring the dark and mysterious depths of the oceans, discovering new artifacts in the middle of the rain forest, or even extending human life and curing diseases; we can’t just rely on the dramatic launches, celebrity scientists, or government institutions to keep that inspiration alive.
Exploration and curiosity are important to our survival, but more than that, they are entertaining and help to foster the enthusiasm towards a brighter future. STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) doesn’t require formal schooling to be useful. Amidst the noise and nonsense on YouTube and other sites are true gems that provide great instructions on fun DIY experiments and projects that can bring the wonder of spaceflight, etc. down to earth. Here are some examples:
Green Power Science — Denis and Dan Rojas demonstrate a number of useful and interesting techniques for harnessing the power of the sun, making vacuum chambers, etc.
The King of Random — Grant Thompson and his team make videos “ to explore life through all kinds of life hacks, experiments, and random weekend projects.”
The Backyard Scientist — Entertaining and very cool, The Backyard Scientist does everything from “exploding arrows, to making instruments, molten aluminum to science/chemistry experiments”.
Cody’s Lab — Cody shares his explorations in science, bees, gardening and more.
The Falcon Heavy opens the solar system up to more people than ever before. For the first time ever, a privately built rocket has sent a payload outside of the Earth’s orbit and for a fraction of the cost of other rockets with the same capability. With the exciting times ahead for SpaceX and human space flight in general, it is important to keep the enthusiasm going within our own spheres of influence so that this renewed energy may take root within human culture.
Chris Rogers is a SpaceX enthusiast and over all fan of privatized space flight. His goal is to author articles that make space related news and events approachable by lay persons and people just starting to follow the New Space industry.
Would you like to learn more? Here are some great resources for SpaceX information: