Sending a Tesla into space

Maybe it’s my instinctive distrust of bored billionaires treating the world as their playground, but I’m always dubious about Elon Musk’s various moonshot projects. He seems to be enjoying it all a little too much. Latest among his outlandish ideas was the concept of sending a Tesla out into space with yesterday’s historic Falcon Heavy rocket launch. I thought it was just another indulgence of a febrile mind, but then I saw the Earth fly-by videos and suddenly it all made sense.

Elon Musk, the master salesman of our times, has found the perfect implement for making science sexy and evocative to everyone: a Tesla Roadster. Without a human element, even the fiery eruptions of a rocket launch can start to feel repetitive, especially in our present age of instant access to the spectacular and otherworldly. So Musk is saying, how about a glossy red electric supercar to reignite imaginations?

And not just that, the entire thing was streamed live in a high-quality 1080p YouTube feed, from multiple angles, and with fun touches like a “Made on Earth by Humans” printed on a circuitboard and a “Don’t Panic” message on the dashboard. The spacesuit-wearing dummy with its left arm nonchalantly draped over the car door with David Bowie blasting on the speakers was the perfect finishing touch. This is science served with a side of badass.

For Musk, the entire adventure is the perfect brand symbiosis: his SpaceX company gets a shiny attention grabber to help promote its spacefaring work, and his Tesla car company gets to claim that it has the fastest car in space. The bad jokes about the Roadster’s ludicrous speed out there are already pouring in, plus this pomp is helping divert attention from Tesla’s recent Model 3 production delays. It’s the greatest publicity stunt we’ve seen in a long time.

Like Steve Jobs pulling the original MacBook Air out of a manila envelope back in 2008, the Tesla onboard the Falcon Heavy rocket was not strictly necessary to make the event impressive. But the car’s presence and expert presentation is what elevated that event, it’s what many of us will remember most vividly, and its continuing joyride through space will keep reminding us of the feat. On any other day, the choreographed twin rocket landing upon return from the successful Falcon Heavy launch would have been the main event. But then the car came up and everyone was floored.

What we witnessed yesterday was the internet generation’s approximation of the moon landing, and that Roadster might well remain the totemic symbol of the achievement.

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