VIDEO – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launcher made an almost perfect first flight on its first attempt. His two side boosters have even been recovered. The crazy bet of Elon Musk is successful.

The US SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket took off on Tuesday night for its first flight from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, making it the most powerful rocket in service in the world. The machine can theoretically carry 64 tons in low orbit and almost 27 tons in a geostationary orbit, more than twice as good as its strongest competitors. On takeoff, the 27 engines ignited in a thunderous noise, ejecting huge clouds of smoke around the firing point and quickly propelling the launcher to the sky.

The Falcon Heavy is a sort of three-stage assembly of the Falcon 9 rocket, topped by a second stage and a large cap that can house satellites. But for this first high-risk flight, SpaceX preferred not to carry a functional satellite. The extravagant Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX and the automotive company Tesla, however, took the opportunity to put under the cap his small personal Tesla roadster red “to send to Mars”, as for a distant mission of exploration of the system solar. In homage to David Bowie, who died last year, the model at the wheel of the electric cabriolet was named “Starman”, as the song of the English artist. The thrower must carry his charge to a distant trajectory that approaches the orbit of Mars. Normally, the small car should avoid the red planet, the risk of impact is “really small,” reassured Elon Musk at a press conference a few hours before the flight.

Before this first flight, SpaceX had put all the chances on his side, testing on the ground for 10 seconds on January 24 the ignition of the 27 engines on the firing point. The goal was to make sure that their simultaneous operation was not going to cause unforeseen problems.

SpaceX also had to try a new first, the recovery of the first three stages of the launcher. The flight plan provided for the two side boosters to land near the shore of Cape Canaveral just under 8 minutes after take-off. The central body must then land on a barge floating on the Atlantic a few seconds later. The two side boosters managed to land as planned, to the nearest second. The fate of the central stage remains more uncertain. SpaceX cut the retransmission without having broadcast the images of its eventual recovery. The most likely hypothesis is that it has been damaged at sea.

This recovery of 27 of the 28 engines of the launcher (the second stage has only one engine) is at the heart of SpaceX’s strategy to reduce costs. The list price of a Falcon Heavy is thus displayed at $ 90 million, while its closest US competitor, Delta IV Heavy from United Launch Alliance, costs at least $ 350 million.

Even with this price argument, Falcon Heavy no longer has a very important place in Elon Musk’s strategy. Because between the time he first spoke of this heavy launcher, in 2011, and today, the performance of Falcon 9 has increased by 86%. A gain that makes it perfectly suited to carry all existing satellites, even the heaviest. The three-body version then becomes much too powerful for the needs of the market.

For future flights to the moon and to Mars, Elon Musk explained that his company was now focusing on another of his projects, the BFR, for “Big Fucking Rocket”, which should be as powerful as the mythical Saturn V that carried the American astronauts on the moon in the 1960s. First flight planned in 2024.