On Tuesday afternoon, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, and the most powerful since the Saturn V rocket that first took astronauts to the moon back in 1969.
The rocket’s payload was Elon Musk’s personal, $112,000 Tesla roadster, piloted by a vacant SpaceX spacesuit. As the rocket left Earth, the car’s stereo was blasting David Bowie. According to Musk, the car will travel in a billion-year orbit around the Sun, often passing close to Mars, but will not enter Mars orbit.
Obviously, the car was designed for use on Earth and wasn’t created to withstand the harsh space environment. During a press conference following the launch, a reporter asked Musk what SpaceX had done to prepare the car for orbit.
“We didn’t really test any of those materials to see if they’re space hardened or whatever,” Musk said at the post-launch press conference. “It has the same seats as a normal car. It’s literally just a normal car in space.”
“I kind of like the absurdity of that,” Musk added, saying there were no sensors in the Starman suit either.
The payload was criticized as a wasteful publicity stunt by some in the scientific community. In a particularly colorful thread of since-deleted tweets, a NASA JPL scientist described the stunt as “hideously, wastefully hedonistic.”
“It’s waving his executive genitals around,” he tweeted, arguing that the launch could’ve been used for something useful, like cubesat experiments.
While there is certainly a criticism of a billionaire throwing a car that most of us will never be able to afford into deep space, the stunt is not without value to SpaceX. To test new technologies in space, organizations will often use dummy payloads to avoid jeopardizing valuable equipment. In the case of the maiden Falcon 9 launch, for instance, a wheel of cheese was the dummy payload.
"Normally for a new rocket they launch a block of concrete or something," Musk said. "That's just so boring."
There’s little doubt the launch could’ve been put to better scientific use, but for SpaceX and Tesla, it’s also about the best advertisement they could ask for.