Tag Archives: Space

Space Car

There is a car in space right now.

Like an actual road-safe, driven on earth on an actual road, not-originally-intended-for-space car in space. And it was playing David Bowie until it ran out of juice.

So, a while ago, Tesla/SpaceX/Boring Company founder/potential supervillain Elon Musk tweeted that the Falcon Heavy’s test payload would be his own Tesla Roadster. The Falcon Heavy is the latest rocket to come out of Musk’s SpaceX. Which sounds pretty cool but it’s important to know what the Falcons are: reusable rockets.

See, when you launch a rocket in space, it’s kinda a one-off thing. The Saturn V that launched the Apollo missions were just junk afterwards. The Space Shuttle was revolutionary because the booster rockets could be recovered and refurbished (along with the orbiter as well). The Falcon Heavy, like the Falcon 9 it’s built on, can also be reused. Not just that, but the rocket literally lands itself. As in, after launching its payload, the first stage detaches, turns around, comes home, and lands.

It’s really cool, both as a technological marvel in itself and also for what it portends to making spaceflight more affordable. Which is really cool because if we’re going to start mining asteroids and send people to Mars, we’re gonna need to make it cheaper to get out there.

And there’s also a car in space.

Tuesday was the Falcon Heavy’s first launch and its payload was, as promised, Elon Musk’s red Tesla. Given that it was the rocket’s first flight, and first flights tend to result in things exploding, it made some sense that it wasn’t anything too valuable (although there’s an argument that given the prohibitive nature of space travel, any risk is one worth taking). But a convertible instead of a mock satellite?

It’s a pretty remarkable image. Leaving Earth’s orbit is a red car, top down, with a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, “DON’T PANIC” written on the dash, a towel and a copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy in the glovebox, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life On Mars” playing on the radio. It was sent beyond Earth’s orbit into an elliptical around the sun, its aphelion nearly reaching the Asteroid Belt.

There’s a car in space.

And its picture’s been all over the internet, all over newspapers. This picture of a spaceman in a car, Earth in the distance behind. There’s been a lot of press, a lot of people are talking about it, and you’re probably wondering why I’ve been ranting on about spaceships and space cars on a blog that’s usually about stories.

Because, by launching a sports car into space, Elon Musk created a pretty neat narrative for the Falcon Heavy’s launch. It’s not unusual for a dummy payload to be a bunch of concrete bricks, something heavy and unimportant. But because the payload here’s a car (and the company CEO’s personal car at that), it becomes that much more interesting. There’s an endlessly shareable image that captures the imagination in ways the picture of rockets touching down can’t quite.

People are talking about the Falcon Heavy’s launch far more than the Falcon 9’s maiden launch or when the Falcon 9’s booster landed for the first time. It’s even gotten way more buzz than when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad (All this is based on a cursory Google Trend comparison for the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, with SpaceX used for reference). There’s buzz, people are talking about space travel. And all the little touches and the Hitchhiker’s reference gives it all a sense of romance and whimsey we don’t usually get in the usually very rigorous and economic space travel. It’s cool, and it’s a little silly.

Call it an attention grab, but I figure that’s just what’s needed. Musk and SpaceX have the world’s attention as they forge on ahead in an attempt to revolutionize space travel. An aware an excited public puts space exploration back into vogue, which could lead to NASA having a bigger budget and, in turn, more contracts for SpaceX, and so bigger rockets and crewed missions to Mars.

And in the meantime, Elon Musk launched his car into space. And I think that’s wonderful.

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Where No One Has Gone Before

Let’s talk about space, because of Interstellar. Now, it’s hard to discuss the film because so much of what makes it Interstellar is because its based so fundamentally on the curves and turns of the plot. So for the sake of avoiding spoilers and ruining everything, we’re not talking about Interstellar’s story.

Instead let’s talk about the set up; about the initial question asked by the film, the question of space travel. Many of the early parts of Interstellar can be read as a vindication of space programs. There’s a strong lament for the abandonment of space exploration.

Interstellar espouses the idea that we’re supposed to go beyond earth, what with the whole “humanity was never meant to die here” tagline and all. It’s a theme of science fiction that’s been preciously scarce as of late. Gone is 2001: A Space Odyssey and movies about going to Mars. Instead we’ve got films like District 9 and Godzilla which while great, are very terrestrial science fiction. Or Guardians of the Galaxy, which while fantastic, is a straight up space opera (and all the better for it). Think about Avatar, a fairly recent movie that had elements of exploration: The message was that humanity should stop screwing up ecosystems. Europa Report, Prometheus, and even Gravity were more horror inclined than about a desire for exploration.

The closest we’ve had in recent years is Into Darkness. Granted, it’s very space operatic (as was the old Star Trek TV show), but it (again, like the old TV show) has hints of the want of exploration. Of wanting to go where no one has gone before. If anything, Into Darkness, like Interstellar after it, is a defense of why space exploration is still relevant.

Into Darkness pits two ideas against each other. There’s the one argument that militarization is the route forward, that humanity’s presence in space is fundamentally a militaristic one. On the other hand there’s the argument that exploration is a reason and goal in and of itself. It’s not the tidiest of presentations of the themes, but the revived franchise has to prove that over half a century later the idea of exploring the final frontier is relevant and engaging. It shouldn’t have to.

I, like I’m sure many others, wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. Right up until I found out it would take over a dozen years of training which, to an eight-year-old, is a very long time. But fifteen years later there’s still that want to go to space, thanks to a steady diet of Star Wars, Firefly, and just about anything else involving spaceships. Even now a video of astronauts playing with water in zero-g is one of the coolest things. Because it’s space, it’s terrifying, it’s cool, and I want to go there.

Watching Interstellar conjures up images of today’s space program and how it’s almost become an afterthought. We’ve got a rover on Mars, probes exploring the far reaches of the solar system and beyond; but the classic image of a moon colony lies all but dormant. Where’s the luster gone? Where’s the want to go before.

Though there’s a massive amount of words to be said about Interstellar, one thing I liked was its commentary on it. Space travel is important and is arguably the next big step forward.

If only because I want a spaceship.

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