by William Hall
Tuesday’s launch of the Space-X Falcon Heavy rocket puts a product from its sister company – automaker Tesla – into a billion-year Earth-Mars elliptical orbit around the sun. The improbable success of the experimental rocket’s test flight (if Space-X/Tesla founder Elon Musk’s downplayed expectations were to be believed) and its unlikely payload have made for an unexpected existential moment in the way we view terrestrial transportation.
Musk loaded his personal midnight-cherry Tesla Roadster atop the Falcon Heavy rocket seemingly as a fun and irreverent alternative to a concrete block or other mass simulators. At 3 minutes and 49 seconds into the flight, Falcon Heavy shed its composite payload fairing and exposed the electric car to the rigors of outer space. Fitted with a mannequin driver in an experimental spacesuit – with one arm casually slung atop the car door and the other lazily grasping the steering wheel – the Tesla’s navigation screen displayed a single directive: Don’t Panic!
Backlit against the frail blue marble we call home, Tesla has achieved the ultimate product-placement; visually re-emphasizing the company’s stated mission “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
There is something completely surreal and jarring about seeing one of our civilizations most familiar and endearing creations – the automobile – put into earth orbit. Its tactile controls – steering wheel and brake pedal – seem laughably ineffectual against the solar winds of space. The roadster’s windscreen frames the cosmos – comforting the human mind in the complexity of our extraordinary achievements –putting its interstellar voyage into the familiar scale of nothing more than a road trip.
It’s all a neat bit of psychological trickery that helps us to normalize the idea of humans in space, and advances Space-X’s “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”
Apart from the obvious technical triumph the launch represents, Elon Musk has created a poignant artistic statement of man’s relationship with the universe, using a car as a metaphorical device to illustrate our evolving species’ journey through time and space. Judge for yourself with these profoundly beautiful live images beamed back from the Roadster.
Was this powerful juxtaposition simply a happy accident, or a honed message to earthbound critics and politicians who continue to debate the geopolitics and climate effects of fossil fuels? Was it meant to shine a light on our collective cosmic insignificance, and reclaim power to science over dogma? Given the absolute precision of everything else about this launch, vagueness is unlikely.
“Starman,” the mannequin driver of the Tesla, was not waiting around for an answer. Unfazed by the tumultuous stock market, celebrity tweets or the increasing costs of his cable television, he’s rocking to a loop of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” (sadly unheard in the vacuum of space) as he plots a course through the radioactive Van Allen belt and onwards to a rendezvous with The Red Planet. At a peak velocity of over 40,000 kilometers per hour, he’s already claimed every speed and distance record in the history of the automobile for Tesla – and he’s just getting started.
Photo credit: Space-X