Shortly after he founded SpaceX, Elon Musk paraded a mock-up of his Falcon 1 rocket down Independence Avenue in the nation's capital, with a police escort, hoping to get the attention of leaders in Washington. Later, he had a plan to land a greenhouse plant on Mars, which he hoped would reinvigorate interest in space.
Since then, his rocket company has pulled off an array of increasingly important — and improbable — feats, from winning billions of dollars in U.S. government contracts to landing rocket boosters on ships at sea.
But nothing would quite solidify Musk’s merry-prankster, ringmaster status than his recently announced plan to use the often-delayed launch of his Falcon Heavy rocket into a cross-promotional marketing campaign for Tesla, one of his other companies. In tweets on Friday and Saturday, Musk said that SpaceX plans to pursue putting a Tesla Roadster on to the top of the rocket, launching it into an orbit around Mars, while playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
“I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future,” he wrote on Twitter.
After some confusion Saturday over whether he was serious or not, the plan was confirmed by the company, which appeared to be taken aback that it was tweeted out seemingly spontaneously.
SpaceX, which had hoped to launch Falcon Heavy years ago, has said that after several delays it would finally launch in January from Launch Complex 39A, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the site of many of NASA’s historic Apollo and space shuttle launches.
The Falcon Heavy is an incredibly complex vehicle, with 27 engines, all of which have to be fired at once. This year, Musk conceded that the rocket was “way, way more difficult than we originally thought. We were pretty naïve about that.”
It's so complex that the chances of it blowing up on its maiden flight were high. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win,” he said. “Major pucker factor, really. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Skeptics will see the launch as a stunt designed to bolster SpaceX and Tesla — his two companies — while also deflecting attention from their respective woes — the delay of the Falcon Heavy and the backlog of Tesla vehicles.
But there will be other concerns, as well. SpaceX will need the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency will have to ensure that a car in space “does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States,” according to the FAA.
Then there is the moral calculus. Should SpaceX be launching a car instead of satellites that could help NASA and scientists?
“I have to wonder if something a little more useful could be done on this first Falcon Heavy flight — like auctioning off the $200,000 Tesla Roadster and using the proceeds to fund a hundred or so cubesats that could be given out free to students with the caveat that they may become space toast,” Keith Cowing wrote on his blog, NASA Watch. CubeSats are miniaturized satellites used for space research.
“This is a chance to do something that really resonates with people. Instead a lot of people will see some guy throw his expensive car away in outer space or make a shiny red reef in the Atlantic,” Cowing wrote.