CAPE CANAVERAL — It was a stunning success for SpaceX.
Just as planned, Falcon Heavy, the world's most powerful rocket, blasted off from Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday toward a planned orbit of Mars.
Soaring on 27 engines, the rocket named after Star Wars' famous Millennium Falcon, boosted hopes for the future of the United States' commercial space program ? and a revival of Florida's aerospace industry.
Developed and launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX, the unmanned Falcon Heavy lifted off at 3:45 p.m. from the Kennedy Space Center for a test mission to deliver one of Musk's electric Tesla cars into orbit around Mars. A dummy dubbed "Starman" was at the steering wheel of the convertible.
Blast off was delayed by high winds in the upper atmosphere but the Falcon Heavy still managed to make its launch window.
Musk had given the mission a 50-50 chance of success. Then came the sounds of cheers and backslapping from the ground crew.
By 3:52 p.m., the booster rockets separated and, about five minutes later, the two side cores landed upright, under their own power, at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in a feat of precision engineering and flight.
SpaceX representative John Young, a former Pentagon undersecretary for acquisition, said before liftoff that the successful re-entry of the booster rockets was almost as impressive as the fiery launch.
"It's an audacious undertaking," Young said.
The mission's early success further bolstered Musk's promise of reuseable space launch vehicles, which Young said would help reduce the cost of space flight and further boost Florida's economy. The two side boosters, he said, had been used before in previous launches.
The only flaw in the mission was that the center core did not survive.
Musk has pointed out that the Falcon Heavy is twice as powerful as its nearest competitor but costs about a third of the price to launch, about $100 million. In a post-launch news conference, he said that the company has invested about a half-billion dollars in the Falcon Heavy rocket project.
"The investment to date is a little more than I'd like to admit," he said. "We tried to cancel it three times."
But Musk said the success of the mission bodes well for his next project, the "BFR" a single-stage interplanetary spaceship that can reach orbit without boosters.
"This gives me the confidence that the BFR is really quite workable," he said, adding that a test flight for the rocket designed to reach the moon and Mars could happen in the next three or four years.
With nearly all of the engineering work on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy complete, Musk said his company's focus moving forward will be on the BFR.
The 229-foot-tall rocket is a test of the latest space technology from SpaceX, the company Musk founded in 2002.
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Young said SpaceX has proven a boon to Florida's economy and holds the promise of contributing more in the future — perhaps as provider of a space-based internet system and jam-resistant communications for the military.
"That's fundamental to warfighting today," Young said.
The Falcon Heavy, third in a series of SpaceX rockets, is capable of carrying 37,000 pounds into Martian orbit. It can also carry nearly three times the weight of the space shuttle into low earth orbit.
Even before Falcon Heavy made it off the launch pad, SpaceX had already booked a number of commercial satellite customers, according to the rocket's manifest.
The launch drew global interest, with about 400 media representatives at the Kennedy Space Center to watch.
When jokingly asked if the Tesla on the spaceship was real, Musk laughed.
"It looks so ridiculous and impossible, you can tell its real because it looks so fake, " he said. "We have way better CGI if was fake."
Musk recalled his concerns beforehand that the launch could be a failure.
"I had this image of just a giant explosion at the pad, with a wheel bouncing down the road," he said, a reference to the payload, his Tesla Roadster. "Fortunately that's not what happened. The mission seems to have gone really as well as one could have hoped with exception of the center core."
Contact Howard Altman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.