When SpaceX launched its Dragon spacecraft in 2010, it carried some unique cargo: a humble wheel of cheese. When asked about the payload for the recently-launched Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk referenced this cheese as the “silliest thing we can imagine!”.
A Red Car for the Red Planet
But while Falcon Heavy’s payload was fanciful, it was far from silly. Onboard “the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two” when it launched in February 2018 was one of Musk’s own innovations: his personal Tesla roadster — “A Red Car for the Red Planet”. In an Instagram post, Musk explained that SpaceX wanted to diverge from the conventional test payloads for maiden flights (single-material blocks used to test the ability of the rocket to carry weighty cargo): “we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.”
Theoretically, the Falcon Heavy’s payload could remain in orbit for a billion years. But a chemist at Indiana University predicted that the conditions the roadster will face in space — namely molecular radiation— make it unlikely that the car will survive long after the 12 hours during which its journey will be streamed by camera.
While the fate of the first consumer car in space may be unhappy, electric vehicles have made the journey successfully. In 1962 Nasa’s Saturn V rocket delivered three electric vehicles to the moon. These Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicles served a technical purpose, carrying astronauts and their equipment as they collected samples.
Payload as precursor
The roadster does serve the practical roles of the 60’s ‘moon buggies’, but rather serves as a representative of Musk’s vision: “to make Mars seem possible” as a site of human colonization in our lifetime. This is a vision supported by Falcon Heavy, which was developed to eventually carry passengers. The prospect of boarding a spacecraft as we would a plane amplifies our everyday experiences to an interplanetary level, a merger of the familiar and the futuristic. To carry a payload related not to space exploration but to life on earth can be seen as a precursor to the everyday life on Mars that Musk seeks to create. Sending a Tesla Roadster to Mars fulfills no quantifiable ‘why’, it pushes us to feel that life on Mars is possible.
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