SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy launch vehicle lifted off for the first time Feb. 6 during a flight test from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The three-booster, 230-foot-tall rocket smoothly cleared the launch pad and soared into space at about 3:45 p.m. Eastern time. Minutes later, the two side boosters returned safely to Earth, landing  simultaneously at SpaceX landing zones at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 

Falcon Heavy (SpaceX photo)
Falcon Heavy (SpaceX photo)

The fate of the center booster, which was supposed to land on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, was unclear at press time.

The rocket’s upper stage was slated to coast in deep space for about five hours before placing into orbit its main payload: a cherry-red Tesla Roadster electric car with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. SpaceX said the Roadster could orbit the sun for about a billion years.

The launch was originally scheduled for 1:30 p.m. but was delayed more than two hours due to wind.

SpaceX is developing the Falcon Heavy to carry large payloads. SpaceX founder Elon Musk told reporters Feb. 5 that with a successful first flight, the Falcon Heavy could begin launching satellites in three to six months (Defense Daily, Feb. 5).

According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket since the Apollo program’s Saturn 5, which last flew in 1973. The Falcon Heavy can lift more than 140,000 pounds of payload to low Earth orbit, more than twice the payload of its likely main competitor, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy.

Congratulatory words for SpaceX began pouring in late Feb. 6. Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, called the Falcon Heavy launch “a momentous milestone for SpaceX and the commercial space industry, as the first heavy-lift launch vehicle developed and launched with fully private funding.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the launch “a spectacular demonstration of the comeback of Florida’s Space Coast and of the U.S. commercial launch sector.” He said this resurgence is “good news” for both civil and national security space.