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Space + FlightSpace & Flight

Falcon Heavy Could Launch Humans Beyond Earth Orbit

ByChris SchmidtNOVA NextNOVA Next

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SpaceX successfully launched the world’s most powerful rocket yesterday, once again giving us the potential to send humans to other celestial bodies.

Not since the U.S.’s Saturn V and Russia’s Energia has a rocket so powerful successfully left the Earth’s atmosphere. Since those massive vehicles, we’ve had marvels like the Space Shuttle and the Russian Proton-Soyuz system, but neither of those ever dreamed of reaching beyond Earth orbit. Falcon Heavy is meant to go elsewhere.

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The Falcon Heavy could usher in a new era in space exploration—and a new space race.

NASA has been developing its own version of a human-capable booster to get beyond Earth orbit, the Space Launch System, or SLS, for more than a decade. It has not yet launched, though NASA did test a motor and they likely feel the pressure now.

The Falcon launched with three boosters, each modified versions of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Two separated shortly after launch and landed at Cape Canaveral—nearly simultaneously, tails first, and reusable with a little refurbishing. The main booster flew much farther and was to touchdown on a drone platform in the ocean, although apparently it didn’t have sufficient fuel and two of its three boosters and failed to re-ignite. It hit the ocean at 300 mph just 300 feet shy of the drone ship.

It’s worth noting that three years ago, when SpaceX attempted a similar landing on a drone ship, the world still hailed the near-miraculous near miss. Yesterday’s failed attempted drone ship landing was far more difficult.

The Falcon Heavy could usher in a new era in space exploration—and a new space race. While NASA explores like no other agency, in the 50 years since the first moon landing, it has not matched that singular achievement. The Falcon Heavy not only spurs NASA to complete SLS, but it also gives the agency another option to send humans to the Moon and beyond.

For now, though, consider the firsts that today’s launch embodies. Just a few years ago, SpaceX was the first to fly a reusable, tail-landing rocket that can deliver a satellite or replenish the space station. Now they have successfully flown a rocket capable of taking humans beyond Earth orbit, a system that is totally reusable. In fact, SpaceX is the first to attempt such a thing.