“It seems surreal to me,” said Elon Musk, proprietor of SpaceX, and for once he was understating things.
On Tuesday, his company blasted a 230-foot rocket into orbit, returned its two side boosters to Earth for a flawlessly synchronized landing, and — with exquisite nerd flair — propelled Musk’s own Tesla Roadster toward deep space, where it’s expected to orbit the sun for hundreds of millions of years.
Surreal, yes. But it was also a triumph of private enterprise and a milestone in American spacefaring. Its true significance, in fact, may not be apparent for decades. Known as the Falcon Heavy, the new projectile has 27 engines generating 5 million pounds of thrust, making it the most powerful rocket ever built by a private company.
It’ll soon face competition. Musk’s rival space-billionaire, Jeff Bezos, is also building a new heavy-lift rocket. So is United Launch Alliance, an aerospace joint venture.
SpaceX is already at work on its next generation, the BFR, which it expects will one day transport people to Mars. The U.S. government, incongruously, is building its own behemoth, the Space Launch System, at a cost of some $23 billion and counting.
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