KENNEDY SPACE CENTRE, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) - From the same pad where Nasa launched rockets that carried astronauts to the moon, a big, new US rocket arced into space on Tuesday (Feb 6). But this time, Nasa was not involved.
The world's most powerful rocket, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, carried CEO Elon Musk's cherry red Tesla roadster towards an orbit near Mars.
"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.
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.
"It's kind of silly and fun, but silly and fun things are important," Musk said.
The success gives SpaceX momentum to begin developing even larger rockets, which could help fulfill 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.
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.
SpaceX has figured out how to routinely bring a booster stage back in one piece to fly again on future flights.
Some eight minutes after launch on Tuesday, the two side boosters set down in near synchrony on two landing pads at Cape Canaveral.
Once in orbit, the rocket sent back 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.
The spacecraft journeyed through Earth's Van Allen radiation belt.
About seven hours after the rocket took off, Musk announced that a third and final burn had put his sports car on an elliptical orbit away from Earth and around the sun that extends beyond Mars' orbit.
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.
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 (S$119 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. However, the market for the Heavy is smaller than what Musk envisioned when he announced development of the rocket in 2011.
Back then, he expected that SpaceX's launches would be evenly split between Falcon 9s and Heavies. But the development of the Heavy took years longer than anticipated - the central booster had to be redesigned to withstand the stresses of the powerful side boosters - and with advances in miniaturisation, the trend is towards smaller satellites.