In what was the most expensive act of littering in the history of our planet, Elon Musk launched his cherry red Tesla Roadster into space last week. Because ’Merica.
The enduring image was of the mannequin in the spacesuit lounging behind the wheel of the open convertible while Earth looms in the background. The incongruity of a car in space captures both the audacity and absurdity of Mr. Musk’s latest effort to monetize the final frontier.
It was at once silly and significant. As ridiculous and admittedly useless as firing a car into orbit around the sun is, the act itself represents a series of stunning successes. This was not Uncle Sam launching another satellite. This was one of us, a private citizen who grew up looking up at the same patch of sky and dreaming the same astronaut dreams as each Space Shuttle rocketed off the ground.
Musk willed himself into the space race, the most heavily funded and politicized series of government programs known to humankind. Sputnik announced the Russians to the world as a technology superpower, much as John Glenn’s flight signaled the U.S. was catching up. China’s space program was a harbinger of its arrival as a major power in the same way India’s fledgling program seeks to garner international respect. For one person to simply decide to create his own program from scratch is preposterous. It’s like wondering how great it would be to grab a few neighborhood kids and start a football team with the goal of defeating the New England Patriots before Tom Brady retires … and then actually pulling it off.
This wasn’t any old rocket Musk shot into space, either; the Falcon Heavy is a rocket capable of the largest payload in current operation. He didn’t just leave the kids’ table, he sent everyone else back to the drawing board as he enjoyed the rest of his meal. The most outrageous part didn’t even occur during the flash of liftoff; it occurred a few minutes later when two of the side core rockets were gently returned to the ground in a choreographed landing right out of science fiction. The outsider had achieved the holy grail of space exploration: reusability. Not only does his rocket ensure greater economies of scale, but recycling the rockets for future missions slashes the budget.
Somehow, Mr. Musk managed to touch the proverbial ceiling despite a relative lack of experience and resources. What better way to celebrate such an improbable act than with the greatest selfie since Ellen and Oprah? What better challenge to that next kid out there staring at the stars than the silliness of launching a convertible into orbit? When someone can achieve such feats while injecting a bit of humor, it pushed our ceiling higher even as our universe gets a little smaller.
It’s also important to remember that only days before Musk’s big launch, newscasts led with the Jan. 28, 1986, explosion of the space shuttle Challenger as it burst apart 73 seconds into flight. The pictures of those horrifying plumes of smoke indelibly stamped the space program, halting it completely for 32 months. The newest face of space exploration is hidden behind a spacesuit as it orbits the sun, one hand casually resting on the car door while listening to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” I don’t know that any other picture could be more appropriate.
Maybe silly has a place.