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Elon Musk is set to launch his Falcon Heavy rocket, a flamethrower of another sort

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of its maiden flight. (Photo courtesy of SpaceX)

It's not enough that SpaceX plans to launch its so-called Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time next week from the historic Kennedy Space Center launchpad in Florida that once sent Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon.

Founder Elon Musk is loading the rocket with his other passion — a Tesla Roadster — and promising to deliver the pricey cargo to Mars, all to the tune of David Bowie's “Space Oddity.”

“A red car for a red planet,” Musk, the co-founder of Tesla, wrote on Twitter.

The cross-promotional publicity stunt is part circus and part theater, but hardly out of character for a showman who recently started selling $500 flamethrowers for kicks. Musk’s latest antics are being watched by lots of high-profile people, including some in the Pentagon and the White House as well as Bill Nye, the bow-tied celebrity “Science Guy.”

“It’s cool. It’s really cool,” Nye said. “Everyone is taking about it, and that’s really good.”

Often new rockets launch test dummies on first flights, relying on inexpensive payloads to simulate the mass of a satellite. But launching a cherry red Tesla Roadster is completely different.

“I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future,” Musk tweeted.

Some have wondered why he wouldn't launch something more useful than a $200,000 sports car, or at least auction the car to raise money for science. “This is a chance to do something that really resonates with people,” Keith Cowing wrote on his blog, NASA Watch. “Instead a lot of people will see some guy throw his expensive car away in space or make a shiny red reef in the Atlantic.”

Phil Plait, an astronomer, wrote on his SYFY blog that he was “concerned at first that putting a car into orbit around Mars seemed, well, profligate. Why not put up some sort of basic scientific package, or even better a CARE package for future astronauts loaded with water, food, and equipment?”

But he added that “since the payload will just be on an interplanetary orbit, there’s no real need for that. As a bonus, launching a car shows just how powerful the rocket is. As a PR stunt, it’s a clever one; it’s actually Musk’s own car.”

For all of Musk's products and pursuits, from electric cars and space to linking human brains to computers, to a tunneling company and concerns over the rise of artificial intelligence, there is nothing quite like the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful American rocket since the Apollo-era Saturn V. With 27 engines, the rocket is three times more powerful than the workhorse Falcon 9 rocket the company has been flying since 2010. If it can launch successfully, the Pentagon wants to use it to launch national security satellites. Musk has said he plans to use it to fly cargo to Mars and an undisclosed couple of people in a tourist jaunt around the moon.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was successfully launched into space on Jan. 7, to deliver a secret U.S. government satellite. (Video: Reuters)

It could also play a part in the Trump administration’s plans to return to the moon. Over the weekend, Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, tweeted that the rocket would have “major (positive) ramifications for US space industry if this goes according to plan.”

SpaceX has said that the Falcon Heavy would cost $90 million a launch, a fraction of what NASA’s more powerful Space Launch System would cost. Last year, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the SLS rocket would cost about $1 billion per launch. With such a vast difference in price, some have wondered if the Falcon Heavy obviates the need for SLS.

“If the SpaceX model works, it creates direct competition to SLS,” said Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University.

Given its relatively low price, the Falcon Heavy could be a real boon to NASA’s moon plans, said Charles Miller, the president of NextGen Space, a consulting company. “The only way NASA is going to go back to the moon in a sustainable manner is by leveraging commercial heavy lift and commercial space flight in general.”

The Heavy is made up of three Falcon 9 rocket “cores,” the long tubes that hold the engines and propellant, that sit alongside each other, providing 5.1 million pounds of thrust, or the equivalent of the power of 18 747 airplanes.

The chance of failure of new rockets has been exceedingly high, especially in the early days of the Space Age. Between 1957 and 1966, the United States attempted to launch 424 rockets to orbit. Of those, 343 were successful, meaning there was a failure rate of nearly 20 percent. The average number of failures during that time was about eight per year, according to Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm.

SpaceX knows both failure and triumph. Its Falcon 1 rocket launched three times before reaching orbit on the fourth try. But its Falcon 9, a far more complicated vehicle, was successful on its first launch.

The Falcon Heavy, though, is another beast altogether — so complicated that its launch has been repeatedly delayed. Last year, Musk said preparing the rocket for launch was “way, way more difficult than we originally thought. We were pretty naive about that.”

He said the chances of an explosion on the first flight are high. “I hope it makes it far enough from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider that a win,” he said. “Major pucker factor, really. There’s no other way to describe it.”

Then again, if SpaceX is able to pull of a successful launch, now scheduled for Tuesday, it would be an extraordinary show. During a recent engine test firing, a massive plume of smoke could be seen for miles. As part of the mission, SpaceX will attempt to land all three first-stage boosters so that they could be reused.

Two would fly back to Cape Canaveral, to touch down on landing pads along the coastline, while a third would land on a ship at sea.