Heavy, which is 23-stories tall, equal to roughly 250 feet, and which previously launched Musk’s cherry red Tesla roadster to space in a 2018 debut test flight, blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center carrying its first customer payload. SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker said during a livestream: “T plus 33 seconds into flight, under the power of 5.1 million pounds of thrust, Falcon Heavy is headed to space.” About three minutes after clearing the pad, Heavy’s two side boosters separated from the core rocket for a synchronised landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, prompting loud cheers from SpaceX engineers in the company’s Hawthorne, California headquarters.
The middle booster, after pushing the payload into space, returned nearly 10 minutes later for a successful landing on SpaceX’s seafaring drone ship 400 miles (645 km) off the Florida coast.
In the 2018 test mission, Heavy’s core booster missed the vessel and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
“The Falcons have landed”, Mr Musk wrote on Twitter, inaugurating the first successful recovery of all three rocket boosters, which will be refurbished and re-fly in another Falcon Heavy mission this summer to carry a swarm of military and science satellites for the Air Force.
NASA subsequently tweeted: “Congratulations to @SpaceX on today’s successful launch and landing of the Falcon Heavy rocket! From our iconic launch pads at @NASAKennedy, we will continue to support the growing commercial space economy.”
Liftoff with Heavy’s new military-certified Falcon 9 engines was crucial in the race with Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin as Musk’s SpaceX, working to flight-prove its rocket fleet one mission at a time, aims to clinch a third of all US National Security Space missions – coveted military contracts worth billions.
The US Air Force tapped SpaceX in 2018 to launch for $130 million a classified military satellite and in February added three more missions in a $297 million contract.
SpaceX and Boeing Co are also vying to send humans to space from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, cleared its first unmanned test flight in March ahead of its crewed mission planned for July, while the first unmanned test for Boeing’s Starliner capsule is scheduled for August on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.
Falcon Heavy carried a communications satellite for Saudi-based telecom firm Arabsat, which will beam internet and television services over Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Privately owned SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp, was founded in 2002 by Mr Musk, who is also a co-founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc.
Mr Musk and SpaceX are proposing to develop Mars transportation infrastructure to pave the way for the eventual colonisation of Mars.
His plans include using fully reusable launch vehicles such as heavy, human-rated spacecraft, on-orbit propellant tankers, rapid-turnaround launch/landing mounts, and local production of rocket fuel on Mars.
SpaceX’s stated aim is to land the first humans on Mars by 2024.
Speaking last year, he said: ”We want to make sure that there’s enough of a seed of human civilisation somewhere else to bring civilisation back, and perhaps shorten the length of the Dark Ages.
“I think a moon base and a Mars base that could perhaps help regenerate life back here on earth would be really important.
“We are building the first Mars or interplanetary ship, and I think we’ll be able to do short flights, up and down flights, some time in the first half of next year.”