Two of Falcon Heavy’s boosters returning to Earth at Cape Canaveral eight minutes after launch.

FROM the same pad where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) launched rockets that carried astronauts to the moon, a big, new United States rocket arced into space on Tuesday.

But, this time, Nasa was not involved. The rocket, the Falcon Heavy, was built by SpaceX, the company founded and run by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

“It seems surreal to me,” Musk said during a news conference after the launch.

The launch of this turbocharged version of the workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, which has been carrying cargo to space for years, marks an important milestone in spaceflight, the first time a rocket this powerful has been sent into space by a private company rather than a government space agency.

“It’s kind of silly and fun, but silly and fun things are important,” Musk said.

The rocket carried a playful payload: Musk’s red Roadster, an electric sports car built by his other company, Tesla.

Strapped inside the car is a mannequin wearing one of SpaceX’s spacesuits. They are expected to orbit the sun for hundreds of millions of years.

The success gives SpaceX momentum to begin developing even larger rockets, which could help fulfil Musk’s dream of sending people to Mars.

To do that, he has described a new-generation rocket called BFR (the B stands for big; the R for rocket) that might be ready to launch in the mid-2020s.

The near-flawless performance of the Heavy on Tuesday “gives me a lot of confidence we can make the BFR design work”, Musk said. He added that he hoped the launch would encourage other companies and other countries to aim for more ambitious goals in space.

“We want a new space race. Races are exciting.”

Musk’s visions include humans living both on Earth and Mars. He’s part of a new generation of entrepreneurial space pioneers that includes Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who has said one of the goals driving his rocket company, Blue Origin, is the prospect of millions of people living in space. Planetary Resources, a US company with a large investment from Luxembourg, hopes to mine asteroids for profit. Moon Express, based in Florida, sees a business in providing regular transportation to and from the moon.

For now, the Heavy will enable SpaceX to compete for contracts to launch larger spy satellites, and some experts in spaceflight are encouraging Nasa to use private rockets like the Heavy instead of the gigantic and more expensive rocket, the Space Launch System, that is currently being developed in part to take astronauts back to the moon.

“It basically gives them another tool in their toolbox for accomplishing the space community’s goals,” said Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s engineering school who previously worked as a senior manager of communications and corporate projects at SpaceX.

Although delayed by high-altitude winds, the countdown proceeded smoothly, without any of the glitches that have bedeviled other maiden launches of new rockets.

The Heavy roared to life, a plume of smoke and steam shooting sideways from the launch pad.

It rose from the pad, with an impossibly bright glare of 27 engines beneath it.

About 15 seconds later, a thunderous roar, travelling at the speed of sound, rolled over the spectators.

The spacecraft will journey through Earth’s Van Allen radiation belt over the coming hours.

If it succeeds, Musk’s sports car will head away from Earth onto an elliptical orbit around the sun that extends as far out as Mars’ orbit.

Just over three minutes after it blasted off, the most suspenseful part of the flight was over, as the boosters dropped off and the second stage continued into Earth orbit.

Some eight minutes after the launch, a pair of sonic booms rocked the area as the two side boosters set down in near synchrony on two landing pads at Cape Canaveral.

In the past few years, SpaceX has figured out how to routinely bring a booster stage back in one piece to fly again on future flights.

The one blemish on the mission was that the centre booster, which was to set down on a floating platform in the Atlantic, slammed into the water instead, because some of the engines failed to ignite for the final landing burn.

Once in orbit, the rocket sent back a video of the spacesuit-wearing mannequin in the car with a hand on the steering wheel.

On the dashboard were the words “Don’t Panic”, a nod to Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Since 2010, the company has been sending the smaller Falcon 9 rocket into orbit, deploying satellites and carrying cargo to crews aboard the International Space Station.

The company has disrupted the global launch business with its lower prices and reusable boosters.

The Falcon Heavy is capable of lifting 140,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, more than any other rocket today. Because all three boosters are to be recovered to fly again, a Falcon Heavy launch costs not much more than one by the company’s existing rocket, Musk said.

SpaceX lists a price of US$90 million (RM352 million) for a Falcon Heavy flight, compared with US$62 million for one by Falcon 9, a bargain in the context of spaceflight.

Musk estimated that his company had spent more than half a billion dollars on Falcon Heavy and said that the programme was almost cancelled three times.

SpaceX has booked coming Heavy flights for Arabsat, a Saudi Arabian communications company, and the US Air Force.--NYT

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