For the first test flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6, 2018, SpaceX – and Tesla – CEO Elon Musk decided to launch the “more silly” imaginable load test: your own car. The cherry-hued Tesla roadster reached around 26,000 miles per hour, enough speed to escape Earth’s gravity and surpass any imaginable speed record.
Reactions from the public, scientists, and space law professionals at the time of launch ranged from sheer enthusiasm, to derision of the silly “maneuver,” to concerns that the car could hit Earth or become a dangerous piece of space debris in the future.
Now, five years later, the roadster is still around, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to cause any problems in the short term. Still attached to the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket (the component that navigates through space), Musk’s car is about 200,000 miles from Earth in an orbit around the Sun that sees it periodically cross the orbits of Earth and Mars.
“It’s actually crossing the orbit of Mars around the Sun right now,” says Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell reverse in an email, “but Mars is completely on the other side of the Sun, and in fact, Earth is much closer to Mars than any of the Teslas!”
But whether the roadster launch made an impact on space law and commercial space culture may be another story. After all, how silly do you want the stuff of space to be when everything involved travels faster than a bullet inside a vacuum full of deadly radiation?
SpaceX Roadster Recap
SpaceX began development of the heavy-lift rocket that would become the Falcon Heavy in 2011 with a view to an initial test flight in 2013, but the program proved more difficult than expected.
A heavy-lift rocket must carry at least 44,092 pounds into low Earth orbit, and Musk wanted to push about 140,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, with reusable booster sections as well. To achieve that level of performance, SpaceX had to figure out how to connect three of its reusable Falcon 9 sections together with an additional upper stage.
When it came time for the new rocket’s first unmanned test flight on Feb. 6, 2018, Musk needed a dummy payload to model how the Falcon Heavy would handle launching mass into space, and his 2,900-pound car fit the bill. In the project. But he wouldn’t just launch the car without delving into science fiction and cultural symbolism. A mannequin in a space suit nicknamed “Starman” sat in the driver’s seat as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played on the radio. The glove compartment contained a copy of Douglas Adams’ cosmic comic novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and the car also carried a towel and a “Don’t Panic” sign, characteristic of the novel.
The rocket took off at 3:45 pm EST from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, the same launch pad used for the first launch of NASA’s Saturn V rocket in 1967. around Earth until the car’s battery died, and the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage and roadster moved away from Earth in a heliocentric orbit.
Astronomer and science blogger Phil Plait wrote that he wasn’t sure Musk was kidding when the roadster’s launch was announced. Jason Davis, blogging for The Planetary Society, collected a number of reactions to the launch from an artist friend who thought the notion that the roadster was artistic nonsense because “it feels like such a waste”, reactions from people on Twitter who felt the launch was the ultimate “male midlife crisis”.
Taking the SpaceX Roadster today
To this day, the roadster is about 203 million miles from Earth, according to the website www.whereisroadster.com, which tracks the car and provides stats, mean and silly, on its journey since 2018. The roadster has surpassed its 36,000 -mile guarantee on 69,989 times, for example, having traveled more than 4 billion miles since arriving in space. If the car battery still had a charge and the song “Space Oddity” had been playing on the radio for five whole years, it would have been played nearly half a million times.
Elon’s Roadster Legacy
An article published in the magazine Aerospace in 2018 and titled “The random walk of cars and their probabilities of collision with planets” fixed the chances of the roadster colliding with Earth in the next 15 million years at around 22%. No collision is imminent, although the roadster will pass within the distance between the Moon and Earth in the next 100 years.
So, with the possibility of the roadster becoming dangerous space junk, at least on any important time scale, how does the roadster launch five years later? McDowell, who has did not hesitate Fixing Musk on issues like the roadster’s precise orbit and tracking SpaceX satellites in his spare time doesn’t particularly bother.
“Elon Musk deserves attention for what he is doing with his employees, the night sky, democracy or his newest Twitter toy. But to continue the discussion about whether his car is orbiting Mars or the Sun is really missing the point.”
“They needed to do a test launch of the rocket. Bolting the Tesla to the front as a hood ornament demonstrates the lift capability,” says McDowell. “I think it was a good publicity stunt for the automaker and for the rocket maker in general.”
Laurą Forczyk, founder of space industry analytics firm Astralytical, believes the roadster launch event has brought some benefits to the commercial space industry, or at least SpaceX.
“I loved that it inspired people outside of the space community,” she says. reverse in an email. “SpaceX has become a household name in part because of stunts like this. And it was absolutely something that only a private company and not a government agency could do.”
But Christopher Johnson, a space advocate for the nonprofit Secure World Foundation, fears the roadster’s launch is part of a trend of bold actions in space that erode legal norms set by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which makes nations responsible for the actions of private companies in space and to establish rules against harmful interference in the space operations of other nations and against contamination of the space environment.
“What I consider the 5th anniversary of Elon’s roadster feat is the same reaction I got to launching Swarm Technologies without frequency permit coordination,” says Johnson reverse.
Swarm Technologies was denied a radio frequency license needed to operate its microsatellites by the FCC, which told the company that the satellites, as designed, would be too difficult to track. Anyway, they launched four microsatellites from a location in India on January 12, 2018 and were fined $900,000 by the FCC. It was an example, according to Johnson, of a clash between traditional space security culture, international law and “the commercial philosophy, and especially the Silicon Valley philosophy, of going fast, breaking things”, he says, “and that it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
SpaceX purchased Swarm Technologies in 2021.
Another example of clashing cultures and more serious and potentially damaging space “aerobatics” involved the April 2019 crash landing of the Israeli lunar module Beresheet. It carried an Arch Mission Foundation payload that included a sample of tardigrades, extremely hardy microscopic organisms sometimes called “water bears,” that could live on the Moon. The foundation had not disclosed to the FAA that the tardigrades were part of the payload prior to launch, according to Johnson.
Steven Mirmina, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Law, wrote a blog post in 2018 reflecting on this kind of moral hazard when it comes to “aerobatics” in space. SpaceX probably didn’t cause the contamination of space like the Arch Mission Foundation or flaunt national and international law like Swarm Technologies: “But what about the next billionaire?” Mirmina wrote. “What will happen when the next hypothetical cryptocurrency billionaire decides to launch his 23-story “Hello Kitty” rocket into orbit?”
Looking back, Mirmina tells reversesome of your fears have already come true.
“The list of stupid things people are doing in space has only grown over time,” he writes in an email. “Some immediates that come to mind include disco balls in space, human ashes (and dog ashes) in space; Instant on-demand “meteor showers” launching BBs into space (what could be so bad about that, right)?”
In fairness to SpaceX, the examples Mirmina cites — the “Humanity Star” launched by the company Rocket Lab in 2018, companies Elysium Space and Celestis launching human or pet remains into space, and another company, Astro Live Experiences, aiming to create meteor showers – all have roots that go back to before Musk put his car in a rocket.
So perhaps the roadster launch was an exception that helps highlight a troubling trend. And maybe it’s a better distraction to leave it in the rearview mirror.
Hanno Rein, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and lead author of the 2018 paper that calculated the roadster’s chances of hitting Earth, believes that five years later, nobody cares about Musk’s car. If people are going to write about the tech billionaire, says Rein, they should focus on his company’s labor practices, how SpaceX Starlink satellites are creating light pollution and Musk’s recent turn as head of Twitter.
“Elon Musk deserves attention for what he is doing with his employees, the night sky, democracy or his newest Twitter toy. But continuing a discussion about whether his car is orbiting Mars or the Sun is really missing the point,” says Rein. reverse in an email. “You can quote me on that.”