You know who I like? I like Elon Musk.
Yeah, I know, he’s a car guy who dislikes public transportation. But it’s possible to disagree with and admire someone at the same time. And last week, he did about the coolest thing it’s possible to do with a car: fling it into space.
Musk’s own Tesla roadster, built by his car company, served as the payload for a test of the Falcon Heavy rocket, built by his other company, SpaceX, which hopes to land humans on Mars within the next 20 years. The car will travel in an elliptical orbit that will periodically cross the orbits of Earth and Mars. Buckled into the driver’s seat is a space-suited mannequin named Starman.
If nothing else, it means there’s one less car clogging up traffic on Earth.
The car could remain in space for millions of years. It’s already made the NASA catalogue of near-Earth objects. On the scale of cool, this doesn’t quite rise to the level of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” on the Voyager record, but it’s close.
Test rockets typically carry payloads like concrete or scrap metal, but I admire Musk’s sense of humor and instinct for self-promotion. And beyond the whimsy, the car will serve a real purpose. Perhaps, in the far-off future, commerce between Earth and Mars will be carried out using vessels in similar orbits.
Critics, as always, were quick to pounce. Writing in the U.S. edition of The Guardian, Nathan Robinson called the launch and its attendant publicity “utterly depressing.”
Robinson reaches for all the tropes we’ve heard since the Apollo program. How, he asks, can we justify expensive esoterica like launching a car into space when people all over the world are dying from war, preventable disease, and poverty? Although Musk is using primarily his own money to finance his forays into space, Robinson argues that his wealth is the result of intolerable “social inequalities.” He hauls out a poem titled “Whitey on the Moon,” written in 1970 by Gil-Scott Heron, just to throw race into the mix.
I am as concerned about social injustice as any liberal, but I am not buying this tired argument. What I find particularly loathsome is that it always seems to be singularly directed at space exploration. No one says that we shouldn’t build that new art museum or baseball stadium or interstate highway until we’ve solved the problems of poverty and human suffering. Why should space science have to continually defend itself against these kinds of objections?
When NASA launched the Cassini mission to Saturn in 1997, protesters gathered at the launch site, demanding that it be scrubbed. The reason? Cassini carried a small amount of plutonium, which would power it in the outer solar system. To get to Saturn, the spacecraft would use a “gravity assist” flyby of Earth two years after launch, passing within 720 miles of the surface. Critics worried that a mishap could potentially spill the plutonium into the upper atmosphere. But there was no mishap, and Cassini produced discoveries that vastly increased our knowledge of Saturn and its moons. I think it was worth the risk.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, thousands of their countrymen were dying in our tragic and unnecessary intervention in Vietnam. Yet on that night, billions of people watched the electronic images of human beings walking on another world. The United States was, for that moment and in spite of its faults, an inspiration for the human race. It was possible to be against the war and in favor of going to the moon. Conscience practically demanded it.
If Musk’s car helps to pave the way for human colonization of Mars, even if only as an expensive publicity stunt, it will pay for itself may times over. It will also address, albeit indirectly, many of the problems that seem so vexing today. Space helps us see the world whole, and to realize, in Carl Sagan’s words, that for now, Earth is where we make our stand. Treat each other more kindly, and take care of the planet.
But Musk is also right that our long-term future is as a multi-planet species. And to demonstrate that it can be done, he’s launched his own car into an eternal commute between the orbits of Earth and Mars. That he undertakes the serious business of space with aplomb and élan is all the more reason to cheer him on.