SpaceX just launched its most powerful rocket ever—and it looked amazing

  • Falcon Heavy became the most powerful commercial rocket in the world on Tuesday.
  • The SpaceX rocket completed its maiden flight from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • It put one of CEO Elon Musk's Tesla Roadsters into orbit around the Sun.

Elon Musk took one giant leap to the front of the space industry on Tuesday.

Falcon Heavy became the most powerful commercial rocket in the world after SpaceX successfully completed its first launch of the behemoth from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Musk told reporters after the launch that he was having difficulty comprehending the magnitude of the flight, saying it was surreal for him to see.

"I think this going to encourage other companies and countries," Musk said. "We want a new space race."

The launch was the most ambitious yet for Musk's space company, putting SpaceX 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.

"This is, in many ways, the most significant launch since the first shuttle launch nearly four decades ago," prominent space investor Dylan Taylor told CNBC.

Standing more than 21 stories tall, Falcon Heavy flew unmanned for its demonstration launch. SpaceX may no longer send astronauts atop Falcon Heavy, as the company previously planned. Musk told reporters on a conference call the day before the launch that development of the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) is "coming along quickly."

If BFR is successful, Musk said that rocket would carry astronauts instead of Falcon Heavy. But that may change again, as Musk noted that delays on BFR would mean the return of putting SpaceX's crewed Dragon capsule back on top of Falcon Heavy.

Success was never a certainty for Falcon Heavy's maiden flight, as Musk noted previously that a "lot can go wrong" during a first attempt. The first few minutes of the launch were the most critical, as Musk said that once the rocket was beyond the Earth's atmosphere and the upper stage deploys then SpaceX would be "in very well-known territory."

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."

Both side boosters returned to land simultaneously on concrete pads at Kennedy. Musk says he personally inspected each of them after landing, adding that SpaceX could even reuse them if it wanted.

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 3 to 6 months away. The second Falcon Heavy launch would carry a commercial payload, Musk said.

Musk's space company operates differently than any other by recovering the largest part of its Falcon 9 rockets — the first stage.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy sat on a launch pad.
SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon Heavy sat on a launch pad.