CAPE CANAVERAL — SpaceX’s big new rocket blasted off last week on its first test flight, aiming for an endless road trip past Mars.
The Falcon Heavy rose from the same launch pad used by NASA nearly 50 years ago to send men to the moon. With liftoff, the Heavy became the most powerful rocket in use today, doubling the liftoff punch of its closest competitor.
For SpaceX, the private rocket company run by Elon Musk, it was a mostly triumphant test of a new, larger rocket designed to hoist supersize satellites as well as equipment to the moon, Mars or other far-flung points.
For two Ponca Citians, it was a day they won’t soon forget.
On Monday, February 5, Steve Broome and granddaughter Cassidy Broome purchased “Feel the Heat” VIP tickets and flew to Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch the first test flight of the Spacex Falcon Heavy rocket.
The Broomes received passes to the VIP viewing area located at the Saturn Five visitor complex, which was otherwise closed to the public.
Steve and Cassidy were treated to a buffet lunch underneath the largest rocket in the world — a display of an actual Saturn Five rocket. Food and drink was followed by moving to the bleacher viewing area, where they listened to Bill Nigh the Science Guy and other guest NASA speakers. Steve and Cassidy also saw Buzz Aldrin, who flew the Apollo 11 moon rocket which was the first to land on the moon.
As time for the Falcon Heavy liftoff approached Cassidy and Steve were nervous because the original launch time of 1:30 p.m. was delayed until 3:45 p.m., which was just 15 minutes before the deadline for launching. The Poncans knew that if the launch was scrubbed on Tuesday that one final chance for a launch would be the following day at the same time.
Experienced rocket watchers assured them that the launch would surely be scrubbed.
As NASA announced “T minus 30 seconds” the crowd erupted into loud applause and screaming hoping that something epic was about to happen.
At liftoff the huge rocket rose slowly and began to pick up speed.
“Cassidy was breathless along with everyone else as the power and noise buffeted the crowd,” Steve says.
At approximately two minutes after launch something happened that has never happened before. The two outside boosters detached from the center booster, flipped around and fired three of their nine Merlin engines and headed back to the landing site which was about four miles away. After a short burst they coasted for a while and when they approached the dense atmosphere they fired threeof their engines again to slow down so as to not shatter upon hitting the atmosphere.
Each burn was clearly visible from the ground and the crowd cheered each time. Finally, a short landing burn began with just one engine and both boosters slowly landed on their landing pads side by side.
“Only a few seconds before touchdown we were shook by twin sonic booms which beat the roar of their landing engines by a few seconds,” Steve says. “There are some great YouTube videos but they can’t do justice to the noise and excitement of watching in person.”
The Broomes were surprised by the diversity of the crowd.
“I asked about 20 people where they came from to watch the launch. I became accustomed to saying “I am from Oklahoma. Where are you from?” Only three people I talked to were from Florida,” Steve says. “Everyone else was from other states or China and two were from England. It was truly an international event attended by an international audience.”
For the test flight, a red sports car made by another of Musk’s companies, Tesla, was the unusual cargo, enclosed in protective covering for the launch. Musk’s rocketing Roadster is shooting for a solar orbit that will reach all the way to Mars.
The three boosters and 27 engines roared to life at Kennedy Space Center, as thousands watched from surrounding beaches, bridges and roads, jamming the highways in scenes unmatched since NASA’s last space shuttle flight. At SpaceX Mission Control in Southern California, employees screamed, whistled and raised pumped fists into the air as the launch commentators called off each milestone.
All 3,000 “Feel the Heat” ticket holders were given commemorative Spacex Falcon Heavy hats and a champagne glass plus an “I was Here” poster. Immediately after landing all adults were treated to free champagne.
The talk soon turned to the unique cargo of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Since all new rockets do not carry a satellite on their first flight because they might blow up, Elon Musk decided to put his personal cherry red Tesla sports car on top of the rocket along with concrete blocks to simulate a cargo.
“We witnessed what will surely be the only car ever launched into space,” Steve says. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
As two of hundreds of thousands that watched the launch in person, the Broomes were treated to an unforgettable experience.
“All in all we had a wonderful trip and would not trade it in for the world,” Steve says. “A huge rocket launch, two boosters landing, two sonic booms and a sports car in space was almost too much to take.”