Why it’s great that SpaceX’s Heavy Falcon put a car in space

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018. On this date, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX did something spectacular with the first launch of its Heavy Falcon rockets. Actually, they did quite a few spectacular things.

The Heavy Falcon launch was noteworthy for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Heavy Falcon rocket design makes it incredibly powerful while very inexpensive for a rocket of its size. The launch was also a test of SpaceX’s rocket retrieval technology which means that after rockets launch an object into space, the rockets then return to a preprogrammed destination. This means that, instead of simply drifting in space, rockets can efficiently return to base to be used again. The goal here is to re-use rockets, creating a huge reduction in the costs across multiple launches. Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely, the launch sent an astronaut mannequin drifting into space in a red sports car playing David Bowie music. Let’s look at these ideas one at a time.

More powerful rockets

SpaceX has launched many rockets in its time, but none quite like the Falcon Heavy. The Falcon 9 rockets were designed to ensure stability and reusability. The concept of reliable and reusable rockets are a cornerstone of Elon Musk’s dream of the human race one day colonising Mars. Well, the Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9s put together. Two rockets similar to standard Falcon 9s are positioned on either side while a heavily modified rocket of a similar design takes the centre position. The two side rockets detached after the initial launch to reduce weight while the central rocket continues to carry its payload higher and higher. The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6th is a demonstration of the greater capabilities of SpaceX’s most recent design. This rocket’s power means a greater potential for space travel and, ultimately, space exploration.

Re-usable rockets

Those watching the live coverage of the Heavy Falcon launch were treated to a rather novel sight as two of the rockets returned and landed safely at the pre-programmed location in Cape Canaveral. The fact that these rockets were able to return, and to do so without the need for a pilot, is a huge boost for making space travel affordable and, ultimately, much more accessible. The third, central rocket was due to land on a drone ship some time later, after it had successfully carried its payload beyond the Earth. Unfortunately, and bizarrely, SpaceX has reported that the central rocket failed to return to its designated landing site and has in fact gone missing. Nevertheless, the fact that the first two rockets so successfully landed proves that this technology works. Of course, the central rocket proves that it has yet to be perfected, but this is still a significant step forward for commercial space travel.

The sports car in space

And so we come at last to the elephant in the room. Why was it important or good, or even great that Elon Musk sent one of his red Tesla sports cars floating off into space? Why was it great that there is a mannequin in a spacesuit sitting in the driver’s seat with David Bowie playing on the sound system or the “Don’t Panic” reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy displayed on the monitor or even a little stamp on one of the car’s chips reading “made on Earth by humans”? Well, overlooking the whimsical, quirky hilarity of the image and the fact that the sound system can’t be heard in a vacuum, there’s a very simple idea behind it. Elon Musk did something weird and wonderful which had never been done before because he could.

“Don’t Panic” were the words printed on the front of Douglas Adams’ fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In recent times the ideas of privilege and power have become synonymous with the corruption or abuse of that power. This simple gesture, this already iconic image of a  red convertible in space, is a reminder that there is still fun and brightness and imagination in the universe and we can still be a part of it. Short of a toy Han Solo or Mr. Spock hidden in the glove compartment, it’s hard to think of a more perfect way to capture the wonder and magic that seemed to be associated with space just a little while ago.

It seems to have been an effective reminder as well as so many around the world tuned in to see this launch and to marvel or laugh or even roll their eyes at the bizarre artificial astronaut cruising away towards infinity. While some might feel that this is a pretty heavy publicity stunt for Elon Musk’s companies SpaceX and Tesla, it’s still pretty hard to fault. The first is seeking to improve the quality and availability of space travel, to push humanity beyond its boundaries, while the second produces electric vehicles which are vastly better for the environment. These two things are surely worthy of a bit more attention nowadays. If this silly, expensive prop just reminded us to look up at the night sky and wonder, then Elon Musk has probably achieved exactly what he set out to do.

Give or take one rocket.

Ronan Daly

Ronan Daly is a staff writer for My Good Planet who specialises in Technology and Science. With a Masters Degree in English, and over a decade's experience as a teacher and writer, Ronan has brought a breezy, learned style to My Good Planet, making occasionally complex material accessible and understandable to all.