This is one time where expectations were matched with reality. When the SpaceX Falcon Heavy put a Tesla Roadster into orbit this week, the live feed from the car-in-space (powered by a 12-hour battery) was impressively close to an animated CGI film SpaceX released a day earlier.
We shouldn’t be surprised, though. The space around Earth is constant, black, and without an atmosphere to change how it looks. Still, that the live feed looked so much like animation certainly had to be as validating for SpaceX engineers and scientists as it was thrilling for everybody watching at home.
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“You can tell it’s real because it looks so fake,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Wednesday after the test mission. “We’d have way better CGI if it was fake.”
To test the Falcon Heavy rocket system, SpaceX needed a payload for the demonstration launch, and Musk opted to send his old car into a Mars orbit around the sun, complete with a mannequin wearing a SpaceX-designed spacesuit in the driver’s seat, and Musk took pains to mention a few times a Hot Wheels-sized Tesla Roadster with a little spaceman in the driver’s seat, on the dashboard.
“I mean it’s kind of silly and fun, but I think silly, fun things are important and normally for a new rocket, they’d launch like a block of concrete or something like that; that’s so boring,” Musk said. “And the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world.”
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The car overshot its Mars orbit by a great distance. However, a stargazer’s video of the car still has people talking. It doesn’t seem likely the car will be seen again beyond this final photo shared by Musk before the battery on the live feed died.
The car has moved so far into space that aliens may wonder if we worshipped it as a midnight-cherry colored god.
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While the narrative around this feat is generally positive, Musk has also been criticized for pulling a rich guy stunt, a billionaire’s prank, something that flaunts his wealth, including putting a luxury sports car into space. Critics on social media, in no small number, have wondered if he should have recognized the hard work of scientists and engineers more. Many people are just annoyed by Musk personally, which no doubt colors how they perceive the engineering achievements of SpaceX.
Earlier this summer, maybe Musk had the stunt in mind when he spoke of getting the public excited about space at the National Governors Association meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.
“Most of the public, they’re not really into hard science. It’s not the thing they’re tuning in for most of the time,” Musk said before getting into how he thinks the agency can recapture the public’s imagination:
To get the public excited, you’ve really got to get people in the picture. It’s just a hundred times different if there are people in the picture. And if there’s some criticism of NASA, it’s important to remember, people in the picture if you want to get the public’s support. But if you talk to scientists about that, [they’ll say] “where is the science in that?” It’s like, “you’re not getting it.” That’s not why people are giving you money. I mean it’s a little bit of the reason, the serious scientists are like, “people just make things more expensive; why do we have people.” OK, why do we have people at all, anywhere? Sometimes the scientists are the ones who just don’t understand. Smart people, but you know. You got to have something that’s going to fire people up and get them really excited and I think if we had a serious goal of having a base on the moon and sending people to Mars, and said, “OK, we’re going to be outcome-oriented, how are we going to this?”
While starman is likely gone forever, we’ll always have the memes and the inspiration it provided. For one day, anyway, space was the top story on all three major news networks’ nightly broadcasts.