Is Elon Musk Completely Crazy?

Ground control to Major Tom. Ground control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills. And put your helmet on. Your roadster is washed and waxed. Turn your stereo on. That's earth in your rear-view mirror.

You'll recall Space Oddity, of course. I'll pause for a moment while you find a copy to listen to while you read. Okay — clearly, I have taken some liberties in revising David Bowie's lyrics, updating them for an event that may, or may not, take place in January. If you believe Elon Musk's Tweets, when SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time, it will have Mr. Musk's own Tesla Roadster on board. And as it blasts off, the Roadster's stereo will be playing Space Oddity.


Elon Musk, never a contender for The Most Timid Man Alive, announced it via Twitter:

"Falcon Heavy to launch next month from Apollo 11 pad at the Cape. Will have double thrust of next largest rocket. Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another."

"Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn't blow up on ascent."

"Red car for a red planet."

"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."

So there you go. But is he serious? News outlets initially covered the Tweets as fact. Then they started backing off the story and chalked it up to Mr. Musk's dry sense of humor. Publications such as The Verge reported that it's definitely just a joke. But Business Insider says it has confirmed that a 2008 first-generation roadster will indeed be on board. Confusion reigns. This is, after all, the man who once sent a wheel of French cheese into space. Just because.

Even without David Bowie, the first launch of the Falcon Heavy will be a sight to behold. It will be the most powerful American rocket since the Saturn V and the world's most powerful present-day launcher. It can deliver a payload of 37,000 pounds to Mars — it could easily carry a Tesla Roadster, particularly if its batteries and motors were left behind. The Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 boosters strapped together; for this maiden flight, the two outer boosters will return to the Cape for simultaneous landings, while the center booster lands on the recovery barge in the Atlantic.

This is an experimental flight with a high risk of failure. The rocket weighs 3.1 million pounds and must manage the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbit-class engines with 5.1 million pounds of combined thrust. The stresses on the air frame will be colossal. As Mr. Musk noted, "There's a lot that could go wrong." For that reason, SpaceX has confirmed that there won't be a customer payload. So why not a car? The idea is intriguing. Imagine that you're strapped in. The stereo is playing as you blast off. Then as the air thins, the stereo falls silent. The speaker cones are moving but you don't hear anything. No air = no sound.

Despite Mr. Musk's Tweet, even if the Roadster is on board, it won't go into Mars orbit per se. Getting a car to another planet is hard enough, let alone slowing it down from interplanetary speed to orbital speed and inserting it into orbit. Instead, according to "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait, the Roadster would most likely go into a "precessing Earth-Mars elliptical orbit around the sun." Sometimes called a Hohmann transfer orbit, this is an an elliptical heliocentric orbit around the Sun, as close to the Sun as Earth, and as far away from the Sun as Mars. This orbit takes the least amount of energy to attain from Earth.

And someday, could Musk land a roadster on the Mars surface? Why not? It's an electric car, so it wouldn't need any air. And it's self-driving, so it could be remotely controlled from Earth. Hmm, maybe not the best use of mega expensive rocket science. But for this first flight, if the Heavy's payload is heading out to nowhere, it doesn't make any difference if the dummy payload is a car.

Meanwhile, the Heavy's exact launch date is TBD. I'll be checking the launch schedule often. I can clearly see SpaceX launches from my back porch. I'll let you know if I can hear the car's stereo.

Billy's picture

Way to go sir, you rock! I find it amazing that a private citizen is doing this but not our government. What has this country come to? We spend several trillion dollars bombing and rebuilding, then bombing again with nothing to show for it. The leaders of this nation have their priorities all out of whack. When I was young in the 60s, we all were in awe of NASA and the accomplishments, it made the country proud. Lets get back to space exploration (among other worth while needs) Mr. Musk may be a little eccentric, but he is brilliant, and more than that, he is a dreamer...and we need much more of that.

mars2k's picture

Elon Musk...My a sense of whimsy at the heart of great vision?