Mock Elon Musk’s plan to launch his personal Tesla roadster to Mars on a brand-new SpaceX rocket if you must, but it’s more than just ridiculous inter-planetary brand synergy: It’s bringing the technology mogul back to his roots.
Musk’s rocket company scheduled the debut launch of its long-awaited Falcon Heavy for January 2018. The new vehicle will be the most powerful rocket in production, capable of carrying more than 63 metric tons of cargo to low-earth orbit—or nearly 17 metric tons to Mars. The Falcon Heavy features three nine-engine booster cores which will hurl its cargo out of the atmosphere, and then attempt to land on earth for future re-use.
The first flight test of the rocket offers a high risk of a messy accident—a “major pucker factor,” according to Musk—so its cargo won’t be anything too valuable. Musk promised he would instead pack the rocket with the “silliest thing we can think of,” which is apparently his car.
No word yet on what steps, if any, SpaceX will take to ensure the roadster is stripped of earthly microbes to prevent the future contamination of any astronomical bodies it may encounter.
The roll-out of this news last week occasioned bafflement as space reporters attempted to determine if this was a joke, a spur-of-the-moment idea Musk would execute in the weeks ahead of launch, or a plan that SpaceX has fully worked out. The answer is somewhere between the second and third options, according to Musk and anonymous SpaceX sources.
Thus continues the long tradition of SpaceX’s launch promotional stunts. For the 2010 debut of the company’s Dragon spacecraft, which now performs regular service hauling supplies, hardware and scientific experiments up to the International Space Station, engineers loaded it with an enormous wheel of Le Brouère cheese, in reference to a Monty Python sketch.
SpaceX itself emerged from a turn-of-the-century stunt that Musk cooked up to promote the idea of humans exploring the solar system. After leaving Pay-Pal, Musk decided that he wanted to use some of the money earned from selling his first start-up, Zip2, to launch a greenhouse habitat to Mars. The habitat would attempt to grow plants in Martian soil, demonstrating that humans could achieve some measure of self-sufficiency there. (Mars advocates are still looking at similar experiments). Another version of the project envisioned sending mice to Mars in a kind of terrarium.
These plans foundered when the cost of buying rockets to launch them exceeded Musk’s multi-million dollar budget. But his research into the space industry convinced him that a better way to get humans to Mars would be building affordable vehicles to take them there. That led him to found SpaceX in 2002. He would spend the next 15 years developing reusable rockets to make such missions more affordable, in the process becoming a dominant player in the commercial launch industry.
SpaceX’s grand vision of a true Martian exploration rocket remains years away from execution. It has cancelled its plan to send space capsules to the Martian surface next year. Putting an electric car into orbit around Mars would be absurd—but it’s also the biggest signal yet that Musk’s Mars dreams are growing closer to reality.