I opened up a university lecture a handful of years ago by asking a group of first year students if any of them had ever seen a rocket launch. I called on the first person to raise his hand. The reply was, “Yes, an Apollo mission!” That would have been fine, except that the individual looked all of the 18 years old that he was supposed to be.
Indeed many decades ago NASA did have a rocket called “Saturn V” which took humans on a series of Apollo missions to the Moon (and this is also the rocket that installed the mini space station called “Skylab”).
Unfortunately, with the end of the Apollo missions in 1973 also came the end of the heavy lifters. The Space Shuttle entered the scene in 1981. Although not quite as powerful as the Saturn V, it was capable of taking people into space, that is until it was decommissioned in 2011.
Finally, just this past week a new heavy lifter is on stage. The “Falcon Heavy” launched a car (not humans just yet), as its first proof of concept. One interesting aspect of this new rocket that can carry more payload into space that the Space Shuttle is that it was not developed or paid for by NASA.
Instead, the new Falcon Heavy was designed and constructed by private industry. The company, called SpaceX, is trying to keep costs down by making this particular rocket reusable. The rocket consists of three boosters that are strapped together to give the Falcon Heavy its thrust.
When all goes according to plan, all three boosters are designed to turn around, fly back to the launch pad, and then land on it (no, this is not science fiction)!
In fact, two of the three boosters from this first historic launch from February 6th, 2018, did just that. The third (center) booster did not make it, and instead plunged into the ocean.
The ultimate goal is to use the Falcon Heavy, as well as an even more powerful rocket still in development, to take people to the Moon and beyond.