But why do so many people care about this launch? After all, the Saturn V moon rocket, which was built for the NASA Apollo program in the 1960s, was far larger than the Falcon Heavy, and delivered a heavier payload.
Well, for one thing, Apollo was a government run program, whereas SpaceX (like its competitor Blue Origin, led by Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos) is a private company. This opens up all sorts of possibilities: it could mean an entire new industry of space exploration, or even, habitation.
Beyond this, though, I'd argue that people are most interested in SpaceX because of a single factor:
Elon Musk and his team have mastered the art of touching people's emotions.
For example, just consider some of the features of this flight:
1. The rocket's payload is a cherry-red Tesla roadster, carrying a dummy (named Starman, of course) in a SpaceX space suit in the passenger seat--which will be placed into orbit around the sun. (The car should eventually make it close to Mars.)
2. The car is blasting David Bowie's "Space Oddity" from its speakers (raising the inevitable question: If a radio plays in space, and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise?). The message on the center screen of the car, the words "DON'T PANIC," are a nod to one of Musk's favorite books, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
3. The car also contains a circuit board with a touch of humor, including the message:
*Made on Earth by humans*
And if all of this doesn't have you rooting for Musk and SpaceX, just check out the views, which were originally transmitted as a live feed:
(Really want to be amazed? Skip ahead to 51:20; then, wait for it. Oh yeah. Don't miss the 1:52:00 mark, either.)
All of this goes far beyond a touch of style; it's emotional intelligence in action. As Musk connects with his fans emotionally, he distracts from the multiple setbacks his companies have faced over the years, and the fact that they have failed remarkably to deliver on many of his promises. While analysts and competitors continue to criticize Musk for overpromising and under-delivering, the famous founder continues to distract with "wow" moments like this one.
It's kind of like when your dad promises to come to your basketball game and doesn't show up. But then, he tries to make it up to you somehow--by, like, bringing LeBron James home to play pickup.
Watching Musk and company work reminds me of the Steve Jobs-led Apple, or the Howard Schultz-led Starbucks. These companies didn't sell you electronics or coffee. No one in their right mind would pay those prices when competing products sold at half the cost.
No, what Jobs and Schultz sold you was a feeling.
But, with all due respect to those two marketing geniuses, Musk has them both beat--because he's selling one of the most powerful feelings of all--inspiration.
In the end, I don't think Musk even cares about selling cars, or trips to Mars. He doesn't seem to be doing any of this to make money. Elon is Charlie inside the chocolate factory, the boy with big dreams who can't believe those dreams are coming to life. He can't help but share his excitement with the rest of the world.
And of course, we can't help but get excited along with him.