The internet had it’s collective mind blown today when Elon Musk’s SpaceX undertook a test-launch of its ‘Falcon Heavy’ rocket (a strengthened Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages added as boosters, which allows much heavier loads to be taken into orbit).
While the (mostly) successful launch of this new class of reusable rocket was cause enough for celebration, two separate events after launch generated plenty of hype: firstly, the video footage showing the rocket’s payload, Elon Musk’s own red Tesla Roadster (with ‘Starman’ mannequin in the front seat), hurtling through space with the Earth as backdrop (that image at the top of this post is not fake, it is an actual screencap); secondly, the simultaneous landing of two of the three reusable rockets (the third crashed at sea) had plenty of people feeling like they were watching something from the future.
You can see all these things in SpaceX’s video of the launch (lift-off is at 22 minutes in, before that there’s plenty of background information on the Falcon Heavy):
More footage of the boosters coming in for their simultaneous landing can be seen in the video in this tweet…this must be what aliens landing would look like:
— Chase (@ChasxKxnnxdy) February 7, 2018
But while the image of a red sports-car in space made plenty of jaws drop, it didn’t take long for the criticisms to start cranking up. “I can’t even process the narcissistic wasteful and unimaginative dipshittery of launching your f**king car into space.”, said one tweet, with thousands of others echoing similar sentiments. Space archaeologist Alice Gorman opined that launching an expensive car into space was “like burning $100 notes to show how how little they mean”.
A lot of these opinions though missed a rather major point. From a marketing/advertising perspective (note, I’m from the Bill Hicks school when it comes to marketing, but I’m offering a cold analysis of this event here), this was a massive success – quite the opposite of “burning $100 notes”. The launch needed a test load of some sort – instead of a hunk of metal, Musk launched one Tesla’s cars, and so for that $200,000 expense got perhaps the single greatest piece of advertising in history (kinda pooping on those companies that spent $5million advertising during the Superbowl). Tesla is now in the minds of people everywhere on the planet as a ‘space-age’ company, and SpaceX has shown it can lift valuable cargo into space for customers. Rather than “wasteful”, I can only think that this launch will in the end turn a massive profit for Musk and his companies.
I have to admit as well that the imagery was itself, in some ways, inspiring. I’m a junkie for space pictures and am continually browsing images from the ISS and various robots exploring the Solar System – but to see a car in space, with a person casually driving it through space (okay, a mannequin, but you get my drift), was so surreal it broke down the normalisation that has occurred over the years seeing space imagery, and blew my mind like when I was a kid seeing Mars images for the first time.
And for all those that see Elon Musk in a negative light, I have to say that he is one of very few people that seem to be exciting and inspiring people about space again. Maybe some of his motivations are ego-based, or money-based – but he mostly seems like a geek that really does dream of expanding humanity beyond the bounds of Earth.
On the flipside though, as much as the imagery blew my mind, I also saw it as perhaps the visual herald of the new age we have entered: the commercial era of space exploration – or perhaps from now on that should be known as space exploitation. Because while the best of humanity have lofty goals and noble intentions, corporations are only after one thing, the thing they subsist on: money and resources. So while we should celebrate inspiring moments like the Falcon Heavy success today, we should be extremely wary of where these first moments might lead us in future decades.
A flying car is cool AF. But it’s certainly a big departure from the Overview Effect.