Essays, Not Rants! 307: Space Car
There is a car in space right now.
Like an actual road-safe, driven on earth on an actual road, not-originally-intended-for-space car in space. And it was playing David Bowie until it ran out of juice.
So, a while ago, Tesla/SpaceX/Boring Company founder/potential supervillain Elon Musk tweeted that the Falcon Heavy’s test payload would be his own Tesla Roadster. The Falcon Heavy is the latest rocket to come out of Musk’s SpaceX. Which sounds pretty cool but it's important to know what the Falcons are: reusable rockets.
See, when you launch a rocket in space, it’s kinda a one-off thing. The Saturn V that launched the Apollo missions were just junk afterwards. The Space Shuttle was revolutionary because the booster rockets could be recovered and refurbished (along with the orbiter as well). The Falcon Heavy, like the Falcon 9 it’s built on, can also be reused. Not just that, but the rocket literally lands itself. As in, after launching its payload, the first stage detaches, turns around, comes home, and lands.
It’s really cool, both as a technological marvel in itself and also for what it portends to making spaceflight more affordable. Which is really cool because if we’re going to start mining asteroids and send people to Mars, we’re gonna need to make it cheaper to get out there.
And there’s also a car in space.
Tuesday was the Falcon Heavy’s first launch and its payload was, as promised, Elon Musk’s red Tesla. Given that it was the rocket’s first flight, and first flights tend to result in things exploding, it made some sense that it wasn’t anything too valuable (although there’s an argument that given the prohibitive nature of space travel, any risk is one worth taking). But a convertible instead of a mock satellite?
It’s a pretty remarkable image. Leaving Earth’s orbit is a red car, top down, with a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, "DON’T PANIC" written on the dash, a towel and a copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy in the glovebox, and David Bowie’s "Space Oddity" and "Life On Mars" playing on the radio. It was sent beyond Earth’s orbit into an elliptical around the sun, its aphelion nearly reaching the Asteroid Belt.
There’s a car in space.
And its picture’s been all over the internet, all over newspapers. This picture of a spaceman in a car, Earth in the distance behind. There’s been a lot of press, a lot of people are talking about it, and you’re probably wondering why I’ve been ranting on about spaceships and space cars on a blog that’s usually about stories.
Because, by launching a sports car into space, Elon Musk created a pretty neat narrative for the Falcon Heavy’s launch. It’s not unusual for a dummy payload to be a bunch of concrete bricks, something heavy and unimportant. But because the payload here’s a car (and the company CEO’s personal car at that), it becomes that much more interesting. There’s an endlessly shareable image that captures the imagination in ways the picture of rockets touching down can’t quite.
People are talking about the Falcon Heavy’s launch far more than the Falcon 9’s maiden launch or when the Falcon 9’s booster landed for the first time. It’s even gotten way more buzz than when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad (All this is based on a cursory Google Trend comparison for the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, with SpaceX used for reference). There’s buzz, people are talking about space travel. And all the little touches and the Hitchhiker’s reference gives it all a sense of romance and whimsey we don’t usually get in the usually very rigorous and economic space travel. It’s cool, and it’s a little silly.
Call it an attention grab, but I figure that’s just what’s needed. Musk and SpaceX have the world’s attention as they forge on ahead in an attempt to revolutionize space travel. An aware an excited public puts space exploration back into vogue, which could lead to NASA having a bigger budget and, in turn, more contracts for SpaceX, and so bigger rockets and crewed missions to Mars.
And in the meantime, Elon Musk launched his car into space. And I think that’s wonderful.