SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket test is the start of a race to Mars

The imminent first flight of Elon Musk’s giant new rocket could mark a spectacular start to a new era in space flight, says Paul Marks

Just five months before Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, an unwieldy cluster of 30 engines roared into life beneath a monster rocket on a launch pad in Kazakhstan. Within seconds the uncrewed maiden launch of the Soviet Union’s N1 moon rocket was in deep trouble.

Its control system, and the complex plumbing that fuelled its motors, failed. Engine after engine shut down, causing severe vibrations, rupturing fuel lines and starting fires. The N1 crashed into the snow-covered steppe after just 3 minutes in the air. Three more test launches up to 1972 also failed, killing the dream of a cosmonaut on the moon.

You might be forgiven for thinking this would also spell the end for rockets brimming with unfeasible numbers of engines – after all, NASA’s Saturn V had a much more manageable five. But far from it: