Blast off! SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launches in historic maiden flight

Last Updated Feb 7, 2018 2:08 AM EST

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. -- America's private space program made another giant leap Tuesday when a giant SpaceX rocket, named Falcon Heavy, blasted off from the launch pad once used in the moon missions. And new dreams of astronauts exploring deep space were reignited.

The Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the world, lifted off and streaked across the sky as it climbed toward outer space. The roar of its 27 engines was matched only by the crowd.

But the show in the sky wasn't over. The rocket's boosters detached, and minutes later, two of them could be seen descending back to Earth. They landed in tandem near the launch site.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said the center booster of the Falcon Heavy missed a floating landing platform and slammed into the Atlantic at 300 mph.

The payload -- a Tesla Roadster carrying a dummy named "Starman" -- hurtled away from Earth and toward a planned orbit of Mars to the sounds of David Bowie's "Life on Mars."

Live Views of Starman by SpaceX on YouTube

The Falcon Heavy combines the power of three rockets into one that can carry bigger satellites and equipment -- and eventually humans -- deeper into space.

"The mission went as well as one could hope ... it's the most exciting thing I've ever seen," Musk said during a news conference Tuesday night.

He mentioned that the two side boosters that landed back in Florida are in good condition and are both refireable.

But, notes CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood, none of the stages used for Tuesday's flight were to be used again as SpaceX transitions to an upgraded version of the Falcon rocket and recovering the boosters was a secondary test objective. The major goal was demonstrating a new heavy-lift rocket.

When asked what Falcon Heavy taught Musk: "It teaches me ... crazy things can come true. I didn't really think this would work ... when I see the rocket liftoff I think of the thousands of things that could have gone wrong and it's amazing when they do [work]. The two boosters landed just like the simulation ... there could be a really scalable approach ... It gives me a lot of faith for the next architecture ... It gives me confidence that the BFR is quite workable."

"Falcon Heavy has the same flexibility of Falcon 9 ... even though it has three times the capability," Musk added. "The cost between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy is minor."

Musk mentioned that the Tesla Roadster launched in space is a normal car and he said if you look closely on the dashboard, there's a tiny Roadster with a tiny "Spaceman." He said it's kind of silly and fun, but that's important.

He joked that an alien may find the Roadster and wonder, "Hmmm, did they worship this car?" as the reporters in the room laughed.

"Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload ... it can launch things to Pluto and beyond, no stop needed," he added.

SpaceX engineers initially calculated the Tesla would end up in an orbit around the sun with a high point around the distance of Mars' orbit and a low point close to the orbit of Earth, reports Harwood. But the second stage apparently fired longer than expected, boosting the Roadster into a solar orbit with a high point in the asteroid belt well beyond Mars. 

Tuesday night, Musk tweeted: "Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt."  

"You know all the ways it could fail ... I've seen rockets blow up ..." Musk answered a question about his pre-launch jitters.

Musk spoke earlier about the possibilities with Harwood.

"You could actually send people back to the moon with the Falcon Heavy," Musk said. "You could, with interplanetary fueling, send people to Mars."

Musk's goals are to leave his mark -- and his brand -- on space travel.

"We're just trying to make space exciting again and trying to push the frontier back where it was during the good old days," he said.

SpaceX is expected to update the progress of its mission later Tuesday evening, since it's not over yet. The rocket's final phase involves igniting one more time in order to thrust the car and "Starman" into their intended orbit.

CBS News' Peter Martinez contributed to this report.