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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk put the space industry on notice Tuesday when Falcon Heavy became the most powerful commercial rocket in the world.
Musk said he wants "a new space race," telling reporters after the launch he thinks Falcon Heavy's success will "encourage other companies and countries" to be ambitious in the same way as SpaceX.
The launch was the most ambitious yet for Musk's space company, putting it at the top of a short list of available heavy lift rockets. Falcon Heavy is both more powerful and capable of lifting more weight than the biggest rockets offered by either United Launch Alliance (a Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture) or Arianespace — at a fraction of the cost.
Musk admitted that it wasn't easy, saying SpaceX "tried to cancel" the Falcon Heavy program three times when the company realized "wow, this way harder than we thought."
"How hard can it be? Way hard," Musk said.
The maiden flight put one of Musk's Tesla Roadsters into orbit, with an end goal that the car would drift in space in an orbit around the Sun. The vehicle is complete with a dummy named "Starman" in the driver's seat.
Two of Falcon Heavy's boosters roared back to NASA"s Kennedy Space Center in Florida after the launch, landing simultaneously on concrete pads.
The third — the central core of the rocket — attempted to land at a drone ship off the coast of Florida, but Musk said initial data shows the booster hit the ocean "at around 200 miles per hour" about a football field away from the ship, "showering the [ship's] deck with shrapnel."
Musk said he personally inspected the landed boosters, adding that SpaceX could even reuse them if it wanted. Even after seeing the results of the launch, Musk said he was having difficulty comprehending the magnitude of the flight, saying it was surreal for him to see such success.
"It can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. Don't even need gravity assist or anything," Musk said. "You can go back to the moon."
He estimated the total SpaceX investment was over $500 million dollars to develop Falcon Heavy. Musk noted those funds were "all internal," and not from taxpayers or fundraising.
Success was never a certainty for Falcon Heavy's maiden flight, as Musk had noted that a "lot can go wrong" during a first attempt. The first few minutes of the launch were the most critical because the rocket would be "in very well-known territory" once it was beyond the Earth's atmosphere with its upper stage deployed, Musk said.
Delays have plagued the development of the Falcon Heavy, a rocket that some in the space industry thought may never see launch day. Musk unveiled the rocket in 2011, promising the inaugural launch would happen as early as 2013.
SpaceX built Falcon Heavy out of three of the company's Falcon 9 rockets — a system that has now completed dozens of successful launches over the last few years. The three cores stand side by side to create a 27-engine colossus. Musk has said the central core needed "to be buffed up a lot" but the Falcon 9 cores on each side "use most of the same airframe."
At liftoff, Falcon Heavy creates a combined 5 million pounds of thrust — or the equivalent of about 18 Boeing 747 airplanes at takeoff. Musk has called it the "most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two," and its payload is estimated to be nearly three times that of the former space shuttles.
When speculating on what would come after a successful test flight, Musk said that SpaceX "would be ready to do another Falcon Heavy flight pretty soon," and added that it could be as quickly as three to six months away. The second Falcon Heavy launch would carry a commercial payload, Musk said.
As the cost of access to space plummets, the opportunities to profit continue to climb. A recent report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecast the size of the space industry octupling over the next three decades to at least $2.7 trillion.
Falcon Heavy's success means a trillion dollar space economy may be a reality much sooner than any — except for perhaps Musk — expected.