Earlier today, our sun gained a new satellite, courtesy of SpaceX’s first test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket: A cherry-red Tesla Roadster once driven by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, blasting tunes from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with a spacesuit-clad “Starman” dummy strapped in the driver’s seat. On the dashboard display as Starman hurtled into the darkness, waiting in the sky? “Don’t Panic,” the tagline from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Launched with an earth-shaking roar from Pad 39a at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida—the same launch site of the Apollo 11 lunar mission in 1969 and the first space shuttle flight in 1981—the Roadster was planned to embark on an interplanetary trajectory looping between the orbital vicinities of Earth and of Mars. Instead, the Falcon Heavy's upper stage overperformed on its final burn, pushing the outer reaches of the Roadster's heliocentric orbit beyond Mars and into the asteroid belt.* The Roadster is neither the first car nor even the first electric model ever launched into space (the Apollo-era lunar rovers take both of those prizes). But it is certainly the fastest, approaching a speed of 12 kilometers per second relative to Earth when it separated from the Falcon Heavy’s payload fairing en route to deep space.
The big news here, though, isn’t actually the Falcon Heavy’s eccentric payload, but rather the mere fact that this behemoth of a rocket exists and is on the verge of regular operations. Musk, for his part, had pegged the chances of success at only 50/50, where “success” was defined as the rocket merely flying high enough to clear the launch pad before exploding. In actuality, the rocket performed nearly flawlessly.
Composed of three interlinked boosters each derived from SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 rocket, the Falcon Heavy boasts 27 rocket engines in total, allowing it to lift about 140,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. This is less than half the “throw weight” of the famous Saturn V rockets that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 70s, but still roughly two times more than what’s on offer from the current heavy-lift champ, the Delta IV Heavy manufactured and operated by United Launch Alliance. The Falcon Heavy’s capacity could soon be superseded, however, by NASA’s in-development Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which could begin test flights in 2019 or 2020.
A ride on a Falcon Heavy can be had for as little as $90 million, SpaceX officials say. That’s 20 percent of the Delta IV Heavy’s cost, and less than a tenth of the eye-watering $1 billion estimated price tag of an SLS flight. Such cut-rate pricing is mostly due to bold technological innovations and newfound operational efficiencies that allow SpaceX to not only build its rockets for less money, but also reuse them.
The company’s Falcon 9 booster already routinely performs pinpoint soft landings after delivering satellites to orbit and cargo to the International Space Station. In the Falcon Heavy test flight, the first stages of all three boosters flew back to the vicinity of the launch site, with two landing in near-perfect unison on awaiting pads. The third, central booster had much more speed to bleed off, and botched its planned landing on a robotic barge 300 miles offshore, plopping into the water instead after some of its engines failed during descent.
Even so, the Falcon Heavy’s unexpectedly smooth overall performance is a sure sign that sweeping changes are in store for the business of rocket launches. SpaceX’s competitors may soon be forced to deliver similar feats of aerodynamic derring do on the cheap, lest they lose more market share to their rival, particularly in the lucrative area of launching commercial and military payloads to the prized geosynchronous orbit high above the planet.
For space science and exploration, too, a renaissance seems to be on the horizon in which larger numbers of satellites, space telescopes and interplanetary probes can be built and launched than ever before due to significantly reduced launch costs. One might wonder, then, how the SLS will survive in such a brave new world of low-cost heavy-lift.
The answer, it seems, may lie in the SLS’s status as the designated future ferry taking NASA’s astronauts to deep-space destinations. The Falcon Heavy, Musk recently declared, will be limited to cargo flights. For SpaceX, the task of flying humans will in the immediate future fall to the Falcon 9 and the company’s Dragon capsule, which are in the process of being certified for transporting crew to and from low-Earth orbit. To go further, the company is developing an even larger rocket, dubbed the “BFR” (the “B” stands for “big” and the “R” stands for “rocket," and you can fill in the rest). Along with an accompanying “BFV” (“V” for “vehicle”) it could transport much bigger crews to interplanetary destinations, potentially fulfilling Musk’s oft-stated dream of creating a self-sustaining colony on Mars, the first step toward his more fundamental goal of “making life multiplanetary.”
Now… Back to that Roadster, which is not quite as superfluous as it may first seem. For testing purposes, the Falcon Heavy needed a hefty payload—flying without one would not deliver all the valuable data on the rocket’s performance that SpaceX engineers crave. And, to be sure, this was not the first whimsical test payload to be lofted by the company, which also famously launched a wheel of Le Brouere cheese for its Dragon spacecraft’s inaugural flight.
Rather than lifting off with thousands of pounds of concrete (or of Le Brouere) while demonstrating a rocket that could disrupt the business models of established launch companies, why not show off something from one of Musk’s other potentially revolutionary ventures—an electric car meant to challenge the big automakers? Thematically, it was a perfect fit.
Musk’s Roadster, it turns out, also included a few extras along for the ride—a homunculus-like Hot Wheel version of itself, complete with a miniature Starman, as well as a plaque engraved with the names of 6,000 SpaceX employees, and a quartz disk encoded with the full text of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy. If the Roadster also carried any value-added scientific or technical payloads, SpaceX has yet to reveal them.
Its near-pointless interplanetary voyage seems archly appropriate for the moment in which we find ourselves, when the oddball urges of lone, wealthy individuals can be expressed through far-reaching actions that previously were the sole purview of the world’s most powerful governments or multinational conglomerates. It is a timeless, all-too-human urge to daydream about glibly carving “Kilroy was here” in giant letters for all to see upon the face of the full Moon. It is another thing entirely to actually have the means to do it. Should that be something to celebrate?
Nowhere is this clearer than in considering what the Roadster’s ultimate fate might be. Its journey to the vicinity of the asteroid belt should take about half a year, but what then? When Musk first announced the payload on Twitter, he said it would “be in space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent,” and during SpaceX’s webcast of the launch company representatives repeated that estimate. For the carefree part of me, this is a lovely, happy thought.
For another, more hand-wringing part of my psyche, though, it is slightly disconcerting. Might Musk’s vehicle supersede other long-lived and decidedly more serious deep-space artifacts? Outer space has long been seen as not only the final frontier, but also the ultimate universal commons belonging to all and to none—and anything sent there tends to last a long time. For decades, mission planners have tread here with caution and solemnity, mindful that in a very real sense their constructs speak for all of us, to untold future generations. When and if launch costs fall so low that everyone and their cousin can scatter their knick-knacks across the solar system, will that enhance or cheapen the handful of interplanetary time capsules that sincerely attempted to encapsulate the essence of the human experience for future generations?
In the fullness of time, the Falcon Heavy’s payload could conceivably become an iconic and particularly irreverent sort of space-age Ozymandias, a slowly eroding monument that will endure long after we are all gone, with a rather basic if not tasteless message for the boundless future: “Look on my Roadster, ye Mighty, and Don’t Panic!” Then again, it would be far from the first finger in the eye of self-serious humans mindful of posterity. Even now, Andy Warhol’s scrawled picture of a phallus sits affixed to the leg of a lunar lander resting on the moon’s almost timelessly inert surface.
In the end, those concerns are probably overblown, because optimistic forecasts of the Roadster’s billion-year orbital longevity are probably wrong. As it loops back and forth between the vicinity of Earth’s orbit and the asteroid belt, small tugs from all the sun's planets will gently tweak the car’s trajectory, gradually reshaping it over time in chaotic ways that, if you wait long enough, become impossible to predict. Furthermore, the Roadster will also be particularly susceptible to solar heating and radiation pressure—the delicate kicks of momentum imparted by the impact of each photon upon its surface—both of which can alter an object’s orbit in several significant-yet-subtle ways.
This means it is unlikely to last a billion years—before then, its orbit will likely have been disrupted, tossing it elsewhere, potentially even back to Earth where it might become a nuisance for future astronomers hunting for planet-threatening asteroids. It also means there is a vanishingly slim chance that the unsterilized payload, potentially still loaded with viable microbes, could eventually be captured into a decaying orbit around Mars, where it would likely survive entry through the planet’s thin atmosphere to impact the surface—the sort of thing that keeps “planetary protection” advocates up at night. Then again, in that far-off future Musk’s efforts may have borne their fullest fruit, not only leading to a Mars colony but a “terraformed” world, a once-red planet made more Earth-like, awash in living green and blue, that would render planetary-protection worries moot.
But don’t take it from me—I certainly wouldn’t, so I asked a real expert. Musk’s interplanetary Roadster “will remain in solar orbit for a long time, but on a timescale of millions of years,” not billions, says Jonathan McDowell, a spacecraft-tracking astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “After perturbations from planets and differential thermal effects from solar radiation it will most likely fall into the sun, with less likely long-term outcomes being ejection from the solar system, impact on a planet, or relocation to the Musk City Tesla Automotive Museum on Mars.” Not a bad fate for a Starman.
*This piece has been revised to reflect new information about where the Roadster is now headed.