Elon musk is set to launch his falcon heavy rocket, a flamethrower of another sort electricity production

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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, White House as well as Bill Nye, the bow-tied celebrity "Science Guy."

Some have wondered why he wouldn’t launch something more useful than a $200,000 sports car, or at least auction off 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 outer 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?"

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.

It could also play a part in the Trump administration’s plans to return to the moon. Over the weekend, Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike 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.

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 chance of failure of new rockets is 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.

The Falcon Heavy, though, is another beast all together — so complicated that it’s 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 Feb. 6, 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 they could be reused.