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It’s Falcon Heavy launch day…


Big day in the “space world” today… At half past six this evening UK time a rocket will blast off from the Kennedy Space Centre. Nothing new about that; rockets are launched from there all the time. But this rocket is different – it is the first flight of the Space X “Falcon Heavy” rocket, and it is a monster of a rocket, very impressive-looking indeed. For those who don’t know it is essentially three Falcon rockets strapped together to make a single big rocket, which again isn’t new, as other rockets use the same arrangement. But instead of just falling back down into the ocean and becoming scrap, these rockets will ALL come back down again in a controlled manner, and land, so they can be reused on future flights. The two side boosters will land on landing pads back at the space centre – simultaneously, which will be very cool to watch, then, a while later, the central, third rocket will land on a barge out at sea…

That’s the plan, anyway…

I know this all sounds very “Thunderbirds” and there’s lots that can go wrong, but Space X has landed lots of rockets like this already so there’s a good chance it will work. It’s not guaranteed, and the whole thing might end in a huge explosion. But that’s what test flights are for. Whatever happens, it’s going to be spectacular…

Assuming it makes it into space, a booster stage will fire and the rocket’s payload will be sent on its way – and the payload is a shiny red Tesla sports car with an astronaut dummy sitting in the driver’s seat… And that car will be sent on a flight out into space, to the orbit of Mars. Not TO Mars, it won’t land on or even go into orbit around Mars, but it will go into “that part” of space if you like.

SpaceX Starman

A car? In space? Why???? We’ll come back to that…  🙂

There’s a huge amount of hype about this flight. Space X fans are famously evangelical about the company and about its founder, Elon Musk, and many of them are saying it will “open up the space frontier”, it will “revolutionise spaceflight”, it will “open up space for everyone”. It won’t do any of those things, I don’t think. It’s a stepping stone to greater things, yes, but on its own “FH” will not rip through the frontier and lead us all to a new golden age of space colonisation. It will take Elon Musk’s *next* rocket – the “BFR” or “Big Falcon Rocket” – to set us along that road.. maybe…

The significance of today is that it is something daring and something new, and is being done by a private company instead of NASA or a huge space agency. (NASA is supporting it, of course, but they’re not in charge). Elon Musk, Space X founder, is a real cult figure now. Some see him as the messiah, the saviour of mankind, a real life Tony Stark who strode arrogantly onto the space stage, shook everything up and is now setting the agenda for space exploration. Others can’t stand him. They think he’s egotistical, a fantasist, a rich boy snake oil salesman with more money than sense. They see his decision to put one of his Tesla cars on the rocket and send it into space as yet more proof of his huge ego. I imagine some of them would even be happy to see FH blow up when it launches tonight, just to put him in his place.

Whatever you think of Elon Musk – and, full disclosure here, I’m a big fan, whilst recognising he’s not perfect – the fact is he has put his money where his mouth is, and has built rockets that work the way he wanted them to, i.e. the way others have talked about doing for many years, but never managed to. He hasn’t just talked about doing it, he’s *done* it. Ok, so his plans for colonising Mars are over the top and unrealistic, real SF stuff, but I like it that he’s even wanting to do it, and isn’t scared of trying, and I’m still pretty sure that the first man or woman to set foot on Mars will have a Space X logo on their spacesuit instead of a NASA, ESA or Russian one. Elon is pushing at the frontier, moving the technology forwards, challenging those who sit on their hands and say “It can’t be done… it would cost too much… it’s too risky…” He’s *not* Tony Stark, that’s a silly comparison. And he’s certainly not a messiah or our species’ saviour, we need to calm down a bit there. But he is an important figure, and he has done what he set out to do, and today’s launch, if it comes off, will be another tick on his ambitious “Things To Do” checklist.

As for the car… well, this is a test flight of the rocket, and they had to put *something* in its nose to see how well it can carry a payload. It would have been risky – no, foolish – to put a proper multi-million dollar satellite in there, or a space-probe or something like that – because there’s a pretty good chance the whole thing is going to go BOOM! when it rises off the pad, so what a stupid waste that would have been. So Elon has put one of his old cars in there, with a Stig-like dummy in the driver’s seat instead. Some people are saying that’s ridiculous, just another sign of his ego, but hey, you know what? It’s his money, his car, his rocket, so I reckon he’s allowed to do whatever the hell he wants! Yes, it’s a ridiculously flamboyant, cheesy, thing to do, but it’s very cool, and because it’s covered in cameras, if the car reaches space then we’ll have amazing views of it with Earth in the background before it’s sent on its way to deep space.

So, for “spacey types” today is a very important day, We need FH – or rockets like it – to work so we can put bigger payloads into space than we can now, and we need bigger payloads if we’re going to build bases on the Moon and send people to Mars, which are our ultimate goals. For non spacey-types, today’s launch will be something interesting to watch live online or on the TV news later in the evening. Whatever happens the launch will be spectacular – we’ll either see a big, big rocket thundering into the sky, and its various parts landing again like something from a science fiction film, or we’ll see a whopping great explosion in the blue Florida sky. And that’s kind of okay too, It would be a disappointment, but it’s a test flight, and if things do go wrong Space X will learn from them, try again, and hopefully get it right the next time.

Anyway, just giving everyone a heads-up about what’s going on. You can watch the launch live online, on various websites, maybe NASA TV too, or catch up with it on the news later this evening. It might actually be covered live on the TV news, especially because there’s a chance of it blowing up, and there’s nothing the TV news shows like more than a big, expensive rocket blowing up so they can talk about how much it cost. Space enthusiasts like me will be watching with our hearts in our mouths and our fingers crossed, ready to either celebrate with whoops and cheers and breathless tweets and Facebook posts or console each other.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go and start biting my nails… 😉

One Response

  1. […] Cumbrian Sky Cumbrian Sky: Big day in the “space world” today… At half past six this evening UK time a […]

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