Elon Musk’s SpaceX has pulled off the incredible feat of successfully launching the world’s most powerful rocket, which carried a red electric sports case into space.
He described the astonishing achievement as ‘silly but fun’ after his Falcon Heavy rocket rose from the same launch pad used by Nasa nearly 50 years ago to send men to the moon.
With lift-off, the Heavy became the most powerful rocket in use today, doubling the take-off 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.
The test flight was carrying a red sports car made by another of Mr Musk’s companies, Tesla, which was enclosed in protective covering for the launch.
The three boosters and 27 engines roared to life at Kennedy Space Centre 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.
Millions more watched online, making it the second biggest live stream in YouTube history.
Viewers were left with video images beamed from space of Mr Musk’s red Roadster circling the blue planet after the protective covering had dropped away and exposed the car.
A space-suited mannequin was at the wheel, named ‘Starman’ after the David Bowie song.
‘It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that silly and fun things are important,’ said the SpaceX chief who also runs Tesla and is keen to colonise Mars.
‘The imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world.’
Two of the boosters – both recycled from previous launches – returned minutes after lift-off for on-the-mark touchdowns at Cape Canaveral. Sonic booms rumbled across the region with the vertical landings.
Musk later revealed the third booster, brand new, missed the floating landing platform and slammed into the Atlantic at 300mph, scattering shrapnel all over the deck and knocking out two engines.
He was unfazed by the lost booster and said watching the other two land upright was probably the most exciting thing he had ever seen.
Before lift-off, Musk said: ‘I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road, the Tesla logo landing somewhere.’
‘But fortunately, that’s not what happened.’
Mr Musk’s rocketing Roadster is shooting for a solar orbit that will reach all the way to Mars.
The ballast attached to rockets during test flights is usually concrete but that’s ‘so boring’ he said in a post-launch news conference.
Musk’s roadster has cameras mounted on the car which have beamed back incredible shots of its journey around Earth.
A sign on the dashboard read ‘Don’t panic!’, and Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ played on the car’s stereo.
A Hot Wheels roadster was also on the dash with a tiny spaceman on board.
The Falcon Heavy is a combination of three Falcon 9s, the rocket that the company uses to ship supplies to the International Space Station and lift satellites.
SpaceX is reusing first-stage boosters to save on launch costs. Most other rocket makers discard their spent boosters in the ocean.