On February 6, the Falcon Heavy space rocket was launched from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, United States. The Falcon Heavy rocket is the largest rocket to be sent into orbit. The most remarkable aspect of the rocket’s launch is that the rocket is the product not of the US governments space program, called NASA. Rather it is a privately funded rocket developed by the SpaceX Company, headed by Elon Musk.
Who is Elon Musk?
Elon Musk is only 46 years old but he became one of the youngest billionaires when, in 2002, he sold, for 1.5 billion dollars, the company that became PayPal. Since becoming a billionaire, Musk has added many other businesses to his portfolio and his net worth today is estimated at greater than 20 billion dollars.
Musk was born in South Africa but moved to the United States in his teens and became a US citizen in 2002.
Elon Musk has made a career of pushing the envelope on technological innovation. His company, Tesla Motors, developed one of the first electric, battery-run cars.
In the Falcon Heavy launch, Musk had one of his prototype cars attached to the rocket – more on that later.
In 2008, NASA awarded SpaceX the contract of transporting goods and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS). It took SpaceX four years to develop the rocket, called the Falcon 9, that could carry a sufficiently large payload to the ISS. The first privately owned launch took place in 2012 with 1000 pounds of goods and equipment for the astronauts then stationed at the ISS.
SpaceX has used the Falcon 9 in two other momentous space launches. The first, in 2013, carried a satellite into orbit around the Earth. The second, in 2015, was a launch of a Falcon 9 with a satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory. The satellite is expected to monitor the type of emissions from the sun that could produce Electro-magnetic Pulse events on Earth.
EMP can be produced by a nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere; that would be the result of a military attack against the victim nation. EMP can also be produced by cosmic rays hitting the Earth at precisely the angle need to damage electrical grids and electronic systems. The Deep Space Climate Observatory plans to monitor these dangerous outbursts from the sun.
The Falcon Heavy rocket actually uses three Falcon 9 rockets in close synchronization. The side rockets were designed to give thrust to the center rocket.
The engineers who worked on the rockets also planned for the booster rockets to return to the launching pad and land safely for reuse in later launches.
Eight minutes after the launch they did exactly that, landing softly on the launch pad to raucous cheers from the large crowd that had gathered to witness this technologically stunning event.
Musk included a Tesla Roadster on the center rocket. Later in the day, he announced that the roadster had successfully made its way through the Van Allen Belt, with its high concentration of radioactive waves, and was on its way to Mars. It is not planned to land on Mars; rather it will pass through Martian orbit and head for the asteroid belt.
The roadster carried one “passenger” a mannequin in the driver’s seat with the words from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t Panic”. Musk included a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and the names of the 6000 SpaceX employees and the rocket played David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” at high volume. Only the mannequin was able to hear the song, however!
Elon Musk may have been the most apprehensive person watching the launch. His thousands of engineers expressed great confidence before the launch but Musk was quick to reiterate that many things could go wrong.
Since there were no lives at stake, he wasn’t concerned about loss of life but he was realistic enough to say that a huge fire might break out destroying the historic launching pad.
Musk went so far as to speculate that there was only a 50-50 chance of success. But the launch was wonderfully successful. Wired up employees who were expected to give moment by moment commentary were left almost speechless by the event they had worked so hard on. The most articulate comment most of them were able to express was “wow!”
SpaceX is working toward the day when space travel may be affordable at least for the few very wealthy travelers. In the meantime, the company is planning a launch to take astronauts to the ISS perhaps later this year.
Despite his great wealth, Elon Musk more closely resembles the explorers of the past than his fellow billionaires, most of which are satisfied with land based investments.
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