WASHINGTON • The most powerful operational rocket in the world, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, launched its first commercial mission from Florida in a key demonstration for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's space company in the race to grasp lucrative military launch contracts.
The 23-storey-tall Heavy, which previously launched Mr Musk's cherry red Tesla roadster into space in a 2018 debut test flight, blasted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre on Thursday carrying payload for its first customer, Saudi Arabia-based firm Arabsat.
"T plus 33 seconds into flight, under the power of 5.1 million pounds (2.2 million kg) of thrust, Falcon Heavy is headed to space," SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker said on a livestream.
Roughly three minutes after clearing the pad, Heavy's two side boosters separated from the core rocket for a synchronised landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The middle booster, after pushing the payload into space, returned nearly 10 minutes later for a successful landing on SpaceX's seafaring drone ship 645km off Florida.
In the test mission, Heavy's core booster missed the vessel and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
"The Falcons have landed," Mr Musk wrote on Twitter, inaugurating the first successful recovery of all three rocket boosters, which will be refurbished and will re-fly in another Falcon Heavy mission this summer to carry military and science satellites for the US air force.
The lift-off was crucial in the race with Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance and Mr Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin as SpaceX aims to clinch a third of all US National Security Space missions - coveted military contracts worth billions.
The US Air Force tapped SpaceX last year to launch a classified military satellite for US$130 million (S$176 million), and in February added three missions in a US$297 million contract.
SpaceX and Boeing are vying to send humans to space from US soil for the first time in nearly a decade under Nasa's Commercial Crew Programme.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, cleared its first unmanned test flight last month ahead of its crewed mission planned for July, while the first unmanned test for Boeing's Starliner capsule is slated for August on ULA's Atlas 5 rocket.