‘World’s most powerful rocket’ set for lift-off

3… 2… 1: The launch was first planned for 2013 but it was delayed by engineering issues.

Are we about to witness a giant leap or a silly stunt? Today SpaceX will launch a huge rocket which could pave the way for future Mars missions. But some people do not believe the hype.

Elon Musk and his company SpaceX are in the midst of a monumental space odyssey: they want to send humans to Mars. And this mission could soon take a giant leap forward, with the first launch of their Falcon Heavy spacecraft later today.

It is the most powerful rocket in the world, boasting 27 engines. When all spark into life, they exert the equivalent thrust of over 25 jumbo jets. In the future it is hoped the Falcon Heavy will carry satellites into space, and one day take man all the way to the Red Planet.

No astronauts will be involved in today’s launch. And the rocket will not be setting a course for Mars, instead being programmed to enter an elliptical orbit of the sun.

However, the spacecraft will have one eye-catching passenger. High up in the nosecone will be a dummy astronaut sat in one of Musk’s old cars: a midnight cherry Tesla Roadster to be precise. “I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and being discovered by an alien race,” the eccentric entrepreneur said.

And if that was not enough wackiness, the launch will also be accompanied by David Bowie’s hit song “Space Oddity”.

All this adds a certain sprinkle of showbiz to the operation; however, the risk of it all going wrong remains high. Musk claimed there is a “good chance” the rocket will simply blow up, and that any scenario in which the launchpad is not totally destroyed would be a “win”.

Indeed it has been a rocky road for the SpaceX programme. Many of the company’s previous tests have ended with its rockets blown to bits — so many in fact that Musk released an entire blooper reel of his favourite explosions.

Despite these setbacks, Musk is increasingly assured of his Mars mission. In a conference last year he unveiled a grand plan to send one million people to the planet over the next 100 years.

And while many find these claims unbelievable, he can be trusted when he says that today’s launch is “guaranteed to be exciting”.

But will it really be a giant leap forward for space travel?

Down to Earth

Musk is just a showman, some argue. His Mars mission is sustained by constant hype rather than technological progress. And these gimmicks with the car and the David Bowie soundtrack simply show the SpaceX PR machine in overdrive. Musk must do more than launch one big rocket to convince his doubters.

It is part of an exciting bigger picture, others respond. SpaceX has already built revolutionary reusable rockets, and the Falcon Heavy could become the standard spaceship for all kinds of future space missions. And with governments under pressure to spend their budgets wisely, there is a big opportunity for the company to lead a new era in space exploration.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live on Mars?
  2. Is space travel a waste of money?

Activities

  1. What do you think life would be like on Mars? Write down three words that summarise your view and share them with the class. What are the most popular words? Are they mostly positive or negative?
  2. Do some research into the dangers of space rocket launches. What famous disasters can you find? What caused things to go wrong? How dangerous do you think this SpaceX launch is in comparison to previous incidents?

Some People Say...

“I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”

Elon Musk

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Heavy Falcon launch is scheduled to take place on February 6th, from the NASA Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, between 1.30pm and 4.00pm local time (from 5.30pm UK time). SpaceX will be live streaming the launch on YouTube, so you will be able to watch it all from home.
What do we not know?
We do not know if the launch will be a success. It will be a complicated procedure in which the three main rocket boosters will detach from the payload (first the two side boosters, then the central rocket). The idea is that they will land back on Earth in a state fit for reuse. However, this was one of the trickiest parts of the rocket’s development and resulted in several boosters blowing up.

Word Watch

Elon Musk
A South African-born entrepreneur. He established SpaceX in 2002 with the goals of creating an affordable means of space travel and creating a human colony on Mars.
Jumbo jets
Based on the specifications of the Boeing 747-400.
Elliptical
Specifically the Hohmann transfer orbit.
Showbiz
There are also reports that Hollywood star Harrison Ford will attend the launch. He is known for playing Han Solo in the Star Wars films. The character pilots the Millennium Falcon: a spaceship which lends its name to the SpaceX rocket.
Launchpad
The launch is taking place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida — the same site used to launch the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.
Blooper reel
Watch it for yourself by following the link in Become An Expert.
PR
Public relations.
Reusable
Traditionally spacecraft have used disposable rocket boosters to enter orbit which are only used once. This is one reason why space travel has been extremely expensive. However, SpaceX has developed reusable rocket boosters with which it intends to launch many separate space missions.

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