What does it mean to send a car to space?
It makes for an image right out of science fiction: a mannequin named Starman, driving a cherry red Tesla Roadster, with his arm set on the windowsill, en route to orbit Mars as “Space Oddity” by David Bowie plays on the radio. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX and car company Tesla, and his latest stunt have reignited a long-forgotten spirit to explore galaxies far, far away and meet life outside of Earth and someday, be able to actually drive sports cars, or their equivalents, in space.
On Feb. 6, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy LC-39A SpaceX Launch Site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying Musk’s Tesla sports car. The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, and can carry almost 64 metric tons of load. Only the Saturn V, last flown in 1973, used to launch the Apollo series for manned missions to the moon, delivered more payload than the Falcon Heavy.
The Falcon Heavy consists of three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together; after the Feb. 6 launch, two of the three Falcon 9 rockets landed in sync on landing pads. The launch was meant to demonstrate the reusability of SpaceX’s rockets — a system designed to significantly lower the cost barriers of getting into space.
At $90 million per flight, this system is significantly cheaper than NASA’s heavy launch system — the Space Launch System — which is under planning, and is already estimated to cost about $1 billion per flight. Another competitor in the reusable rocket race is New Glenn, a project by Blue Origins — a private spaceflight and aerospace company owned by entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. The pace of this new space race seems to have been accelerated by the privatization of space travel. Perhaps stunts like Musk’s are what drives the need to be faster, better and more visible in experimenting with space travel.
Musk’s Tesla Roadster will play the song “Space Oddity” on infinite loop (or until the stereo’s battery runs out) while in space, has “Don’t Panic” written on the center of its dashboard, and has “Made on Earth by Humans” written on a circuit board. The fact that there is no air to carry sound in space, and that “Don’t Panic” is a particularly cheeky literary reference to Douglas Adams’ novels, show that this is clearly an exhibit meant for humans, not extraterrestrials. The car also has Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy stored in a storage device, a miniature model of the car with Starman in it and the names of about 6,000 SpaceX employees marked on the actual car.
The car was supposed to orbit Mars, but overshot its aim and now, after surviving the Earth’s radiation-filled Van Allen belts, it’s headed for the asteroid belt.
Scientifically speaking, the car is a dummy payload: it has no real scientific purpose. This is intentional. In response to a tweet asking what the Falcon Heavy’s payload was going to be, Musk said that it would be the “silliest thing we can imagine!”
While it is a matter of taste whether launching his personal $250,000 Tesla Roadster was “silly,” it definitely was memorable.
In a press conference on Feb. 6, Musk said, “Normally, for a new rocket, it launches like a block of concrete, and that’s so boring. The imagery of [the car and Starman] is something that’s going to get people excited around the world … and it’s still tripping me out….Maybe it’ll be discovered by some future alien race thinking, ‘What the heck were these guys doing, did they worship this car? Why do they have a little car in the car?’ That’ll really confuse them.”
This event was live-streamed in 1080p to over 2.3 million people, and hyped up with a glamorous animated promotional video. The car also has three cameras at different angles that provided some glorious shots of the car against the Earth, the Moon and in space. The car faded out of the view of telescopes on Feb. 14.
The popping red of the car, with Starman gazing at the stars against the pitch black of space, could perhaps be considered a part of the pop, postmodern art world.
As the CEO of Tesla Motors, Musk owns 27 percent of Tesla stock. Though Musk is a founder and owner of several companies, Tesla is the original source of most of his significant personal wealth (now around $21.5 billion).
Despite its fame in the tech world, Tesla is still a relatively lesser known car brand, at least to the general public — due likely in part to the fact that the company does not use traditional paid advertising.
With Tesla Model 3’s production delays and dropping market credibility, this picture has the potential to give both exposure and sales a significant boost. The combined image of a Tesla Roadster and a human-like figure driving in space lends Musk’s brand a more sparkly, snazzy reputation.
It’s easy to see how this striking image, essentially an elaborate car advertisement, could be big enough to save sales from plummeting. Though Musk’s personal Roadster model is from 2008 and no longer in production, and the next Roadsters won’t go on sale until 2020, the stunning pictures of the Roadster in space are expected to increase the value of Tesla’s brand as a whole, as well as the original Roadsters on their ten-year anniversary.
With sending Starman and his Roadster into space, there is no doubt that Elon Musk has sparked the feeling of “ad astra” back into space travel and has rightfully said, “Crazy things can come true.”