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Elon Musk put a Tesla in space, but is that a good thing?

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Weekender Editor

MARCH 04, 2018

There is now a car in orbit around the sun. Welcome to 2018.

OK, technically there are around a billion cars in orbit around the sun — but they’re all on Earth.

But now, for the first time, there is a cherry-red convertible in a direct orbit around the sun — an orbit that stretches to an aphelion beyond the orbital distance of Mars.

This fact has split the internet. So what is the controversy?

SpaceX recently performed a test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, a beefier version of the Falcon 9 that made headlines for being the first commercially viable reusable rocket. The Falcon Heavy has a central body similar to the Falcon 9, with two additional boosters to provide extra thrust. The result? The ability to lift much more mass into orbit or to fling payloads into orbits farther in the solar system.

The Falcon Heavy was launched for the first time Feb. 6. As a first test, it was wholly unclear if it would be successful — in fact, SpaceX founder Elon Musk acknowledged before the launch that there was a fair chance it would just blow up. “I would consider it a win if it just clears the pad,” he said on a call with reporters ahead of the test flight.

Enter the cherry-red Tesla sports car.

When a  new rocket is being tested, it needs a “dummy” payload — essentially dead weight that simulates the payloads the rocket will eventually be carrying into space. Musk, being Musk, chose his personal Tesla Roadster. He placed a mannequin named “Starman” in the driver’s seat and set the car’s display to read “Don’t Panic” in a nod to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Views of the car floating above the earth were live-streamed around the globe, set to David Bowie.

Some people were not happy about this.

Journalist and author Naomi Klein called out the launch as an advertisement for Tesla.

Mika McKinnon, a geophysicist and science writer, followed up with another tweet reading, “I mean, I appreciate the objective is glorious failure. But the charm of destroying expensive shit for giggles falls a bit flat when the actual economic future is a dumpster fire.”

Mike Seibert, a former Mars rover operator, pointed out the self-aggrandizement inherent in the move. He suggests that opening the launch to student-made satellites, even at a huge chance of failure, would be a better use of resources.

And others pointed to the general wastefulness that appears present in the choice, given Musk’s Tony Stark-like tendency to play around with expensive toys (for example, he’s recently been selling flamethrowers).

All of these points are more or less valid. Space, historically, has been considered an “ad-free” zone — and U.S. legislation from 1993 prohibits “obtrusive advertising” in space. One could argue that a cherry-red Tesla violates the spirit of that law (though not the letter of it, which states it as “advertising in outer space that is capable of being recognized by a human being on the surface of the Earth without the aid of a telescope or other technological device”).

Obviously, everyone is entitled to an opinion about both Musk and the decisions he makes for his companies. But I’m going to defend the space-bound convertible, if not the man behind it.

Image of Tesla Roadster in Space

It’s not really space junk

SpaceX had to launch its rocket with something in it — if it weren’t the car, it would be a block of concrete or a hunk of steel. The fact that no one would’ve complained if the company had used a typical, boring dummy payload points to the fact that people are latching on to the “Tesla” part of the equation, or that they are uninformed, and thought Musk was sending a Tesla to space just because he could.

Space junk, furthermore, is a term typically applied to objects in Earth orbit, which is concerningly crowded with debris and satellites. The Tesla Roadster is on an orbit carrying it millions of miles away from Earth (and indeed, everything else in the solar system). It’s like adding a single, red, tiny asteroid into the solar system. And simulations have shown there is almost no chance of it crashing into Mars or the Earth in the future.

It’s not really a nuisance 

Unlike the Humanity Star satellite, which has the express goal of being visible from Earth — in fact, to be the brightest object in the sky besides the sun and moon — the Tesla has already nearly disappeared from view. There is little to no chance of it, say, interfering with scientists’ observations, a fact which can’t be said for the Humanity Star.

It’s not really advertising 

The sticking point for many people is that because Musk owns Tesla, the move amounts to a self-advertising campaign. But ultimately, Tesla doesn’t need any advertising — presales of the Model 3 number more than 400,000. The fact of the matter is that Musk as a personality is intricately linked with the brands he has created; simply launching the Falcon Heavy without the car wouldn’t have been any less of an advertisement for Musk and the things he represents. Nothing to me suggests that if Musk had never been involved with Tesla but did own a convertible, then he wouldn’t have put that in his rocket instead.

Okay, it’s great advertising — but for spaceflight

At the end of the day, there is something surreal and awe-inspiring about seeing an everyday car floating around the Earth. The fact that there was a sports car being flung into the solar system got thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who wouldn’t have otherwise been interested in the launch to pay attention. The starman in the driver’s seat captures the playful-yet-dedicated nature of humans to explore the cosmos, and to send pieces of ourselves — our music, our literature — out there, maybe to be found one day. If I were a kid, the images of the Roadster passing by Earth would be plastered all over my wall. Right now they’re plastered on my desktop background.

Is it self-aggrandizing on Musk’s part? Sure. But I can’t think of an object that would be as fun and excitement-generating that would also capture the work by everyone at SpaceX. To be clear, the success here was the Falcon Heavy successfully lifting off, delivering its payload to orbit, and the breathtaking side-by-side landing of its reusable booster rockets. But those successes would not have extended much farther than the spaceflight community had there not been such an accessible, grandiose, cultural element to the launch. People joined to see if the car would make it to space. They discovered that rocket launches can be unifying, gripping, leap-out-of-your-seat-cheering affairs. They discovered how technologically significant it is that humans have developed a reusable rocket, a development that has significantly altered the direction of future human spaceflight.

As far as I’m concerned, if it got people interested, and got kids excited about the thrill and excitement of spaceflight, it was worth it.

Imad Pasha is the Weekender editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @prappleizer.

MARCH 05, 2018