Are There Better Things To Hurl Into Orbit Than A Sports Car?

We’ve been having a lively discussion behind the scenes here at Hackaday, about SpaceX’s forthcoming launch of their first Falcon Heavy rocket. It will be carrying [Elon Musk]’s red Tesla Roadster, and should it be a successful launch, it will place the car in an elliptical orbit round the Sun that will take it to the Martian orbit at its furthest point.

On one hand, it seems possible that [Musk]’s sports car will one day be cited by historians as the exemplar of the excesses of the tech industry in the early 21st century. After all, to spend the millions of dollars required to launch the largest reusable space launch platform ever created, and then use it to hurl an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun seems to be such a gratuitous waste of resources, an act of such complete folly as to be criminal.

Surely even given that there is a reasonable chance of a first launch ending in fiery destruction it must be worth their while canvassing the universities and research institutions of the world with the offer of a free launch, after all there must be a significant amount of science that would benefit from some cost-free launch capacity! It seems a betrayal of the famous “Why explore space” letter from the associate science director of NASA to a nun who questioned the expenditure while so many in the developing world were starving.


But on the other hand, first launches of rockets are a hazardous endeavour, as the metaphorical blue touchpaper is lit on the world’s largest firework for the first time. Satellites are expensive devices, and it would be a foolhardy owner who entrusted their craft to a launch vehicle with a good chance of a premature splashdown.

Launch of first Arianne 5. Not where you want your pricey satellite.

First launches traditionally carry a ballast rather than a payload, for example NASA have used tanks of water for this purpose in the past. SpaceX has a history of novelty payloads for their test launches; their first Dragon capsule took a wheel of cheese into space and returned it to Earth. We picture Musk looking around a big warehouse and saying, “well, we got a lot of cars!”

There is a fascinating question to be posed by the launch of the car, just what did they have to do to it to ensure that it could be qualified for launch? Satellite manufacture is an extremely exacting branch of engineering, aside from the aspect of ensuring that a payload will work it must both survive the launch intact and not jeopardise it in any way. It’s safe to say that the Roadster will not have to function while in orbit as the roads of California will be far away, but cars are not designed with either the stresses of launch or the transition to zero gravity and the vacuum of space in mind. Will a glass windscreen originally specified for a Lotus Elise on the roads of Norfolk shatter during the process and shower the inside of the craft with glass particles, for example? There must have been an extensive space qualification programme for it to pass, from vibration testing through removal of any hazards such as pressurised gases or corrosive chemicals, if only the folks at SpaceX would share some its details that would make for a fascinating story in itself.

Space Junk

So the Tesla Roadster is a huge publicity stunt on behalf of SpaceX, but it serves a purpose that would otherwise have to have been taken by an unexciting piece of ballast. It will end up as space junk, but in an orbit unlikely to bring it into contact with any other craft. If its space-suited dummy passenger won’t be providing valuable data on the suit’s performance we’d be extremely surprised, and when it is finally retrieved in a few centuries time it will make a fascinating exhibit for the Smithsonian.

Given a huge launch platform and the chance to fill it with a novelty item destined for orbit,the Hackaday team stepped into overdrive with suggestions as to what might be launched were they in charge. They varied from Douglas Adams references such as a heart of gold or a whale and a bowl of petunias should the rocket abort and the payload crash to earth, to a black monolith and a few ossified ape remains to confuse space historians. We briefly evaluated the theory that the Boring Company is in fact a hiding-in-plain-sight construction organisation for a forthcoming Evil Lair beneath the surface of Mars, before concluding that maybe after all the car is a pretty cool thing to use as ballast for a first launch.

It may be reaching towards seven decades since the first space programmes successfully sent rockets beyond the atmosphere with the aim of exploration, but while the general public has become accustomed to them as routine events they remain anything but to the engineers involved. The Falcon Heavy may not have been developed by a government, but it represents every bit as astounding an achievement as any of its predecessors. Flinging an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun is a colossal act of showmanship and probably a waste of a good car, but it’s also more than that. In hundreds of years time the IoT devices, apps, 3D printers, quadcopters or whatever else we toil over will be long forgotten. But there will be a car orbiting the Sun that remains a memorial to the SpaceX engineers who made its launch possible, assuming it doesn’t blow up before it gets there. What at first seemed frivolous becomes very cool indeed.

151 thoughts on “Are There Better Things To Hurl Into Orbit Than A Sports Car?

  1. I contemplated offering my 1994 Citroen bx break as a swap with the roadster. But no,i would miss it beyond measure. Although a roadster would buy me all bx-ses in existance… hmmm.

  2. “Satellites are expensive devices”: So are Teslas.

    “well, we got a lot of cars!”: He must not have been looking at the Tesla 3s. (Am I allowed to use the plural when referring to the Tesla 3?)

      1. I’m seeing in our future a witty CL ad after the successful recovery of the Tesla. “Astronomical milage” and “runs good in harsh conditions” being selling points.

    1. Beat me to it. If successful, the Falcon Heavy will be the highest boost rocket currently in use, but they’ve got a long way to go before they top the Saturn V. Maybe the BFR, but that’s a long way down the road (hell, maybe they’ll beat the SLS to launch).

    2. Bump,
      This bugged me to; most news sites are saying the most powerful ever, the correct ones say the most powerful in service. I understand the copy and paste news sites getting it wrong, but I expect Hackaday to be better than that.
      Saturn V
      Space Shuttle
      N1 (never successful)
      Energia (maybe)

      1. Shuttle’s payload to orbit was actually pretty abysmal if you wanted to launch something other than the shuttle itself (i.e. a satellite or station module in the shuttle’s cargo bay). As a way of getting people in and out of orbit, it was a lot of wasted mass for the purpose, and as a way of getting satellites and such to orbit, also inefficient …

        But shuttle gets to claim the entire orbiter as “payload” by some metrics, so ranks highly in terms of payload mass to LEO.

    1. I work at an injection molding plant (making mostly plastic medical parts) and I had a short discussion with one of the mold techs and brought up that same exact point. Injection molding may actually be on the way out, not soon soon, but soon enough.

      1. When it comes to large scale production, there is currently no competition. Injection molding wins without breaking a sweat. I doubt the economics will ever make injection molding obsolete. The speed with which you can churn out plastic parts using an injection molding machine makes it nearly impossible to beat using any other process. Injection molding allows a plant to spit out 2 million food packaging containers every day. Or tens of thousands of plastic buckets, hundreds of thousands of coffee maker shells, etc, etc.

        The sheer speed of the process when producing million piece runs of something is what makes injection molding work. 3d printing processes will find a place in the lower number runs, but it will never push injection molding out of the market.

  3. Why not build a frame to accommodate a bunch of cube state style modules, put minimal centralized solar/battery/communication infrastructure and then donate the space to high schools to build cube stats? Let the schools / kids know that for free they are getting a chance to blow up something. And if it doesn’t blow up, then their payload gets to space! Win-win!

    1. This would have been a great idea, but would be a lot of lead time; 3,000 pounds of cubesat is a lot, and would need to be built, tested, flight certified, etc.
      Also if it was going to LEO rather than near mars then it’d need much more weight.

      I wonder if they reached out to Universities and Research organizations that had built satellites but ran out of funding for the launch, though they probably couldn’t launch that many at once due to orbits and such. I’ll assume they looked into it.

      1. Too bad you cant even get close to doing some sort of lifting body landing on mars like in the video. There is a remake with modern CGI that gets the final and braking chute looking much less confusing.

  4. I think the car is a great idea. It has a random(-ish) payload distribution and Musk wants to get into mars colony ships at some point. His rockets will need on-board controllers that can handle an asymmetric loads without lots of pre-calculation and ground input. The car may represent a practical initial test of the flight control mechanisms.

    And onward for some speculative thinking…

    Many of the less resilient vehicle components (such as the battery) may have been removed or replaced with dummy parts. If all goes well the car is destined for an orbit that is intersects Mars’ orbit. Since the payload is nowhere close to the maximum capacity, it is not inconceivable that Spacex has loaded enough fuel for an orbital insertion maneuver around Mars in 8 months or so. Although getting permission considering the contamination risk of a crash might be challenging. Finally, once Spacex gets to Mars, there will be a need for test landings. It would be convenient if there was a test object already handy to validate the landing process. And then, once you re-installed all the more fragile elements carefully shipped carefully at a later date, this could be the first functioning sports car on Mars.

      1. International treaty, spacex is us company, therefore us gov is the one to force them to comply . I would guess at this level it is a matter of talking with high level nasa people and finding a sight out of the way. Politically I doubt anyone will say no to a free (non taxpayer) mission to mars.

  5. It’s a clever ballast load for the rocket, nothing else. It would normally be a big concrete block or a tank of water. The rocket has to have a ballast payload, and at least with the roadster it’s novel and attention getting.

    1. Precisely. The main goals of a first test flight are to (1) make sure the rocket doesn’t explode, (2) make sure the rocket actually ends up where it’s supposed to be, and (3) ensure that there aren’t any other issues that would destroy the payload, such as vibration. A joke ballast doesn’t add much to the cost of the mission, and offers a much better payoff in terms of publicity.

      And using something that was not very symmetric and not really designed for space flight may help make this a worst-case scenario.

      I also share my disappointment with those who thought a teapot would be a great payload. But now, Elon Musk could declare after the launch that only he knows for sure if there is an invisible teapot orbiting the sun. That might be an even better joke.

  6. On a whim, I dare a private company or university to send a satellite with no radiation hardened or military spec parts. And without Boeing or NASA mess of subcontractor markup, pointless oversight, and ridiculous made-up specs.

    1. I’m fairly certain cadets at the US Naval Academy have already meet your dare, in regards to satellite construction is concerned, as had many other universities, and amateur groups. Eschewing radiation hardened components is a judgement call ,my recollection is the Navy Academy didn’t because not using them was part of their overall experiment. Most projects begin with “made-up spec”. Most projects proceed with oversight, only a matter of personal opinion if it’s pointless. Whenever there are subcontractors their is going to be markup, again it’s personal opinion if it’s excessive. In the event Musk’s launches ever allow free rides to orbit alongside paid rides the free payload will have to meet similar mad-up secs as government launches now demand. That’s good business practice if it’s a government or private space agency providing the launches.

    2. This happens all the time with cubesats. Aside from some exotic high-efficiency solar cells, the electronics can usually be entirely sourced from Digi-Key. Commercial electronics work fine for short missions in low orbits. Rad-hard parts only become necessary if you want long (many-year) lifespans and/or high altitudes.

  7. beautiful launch, mind blowing simultaneous landing of the boosters, thank you Elon, for giving us this absolutely epic event, giving us our long term dreams and opening up new frontiers ! <3

  8. Even a tank full of distilled water, or other potential supplies, plus solar panels and a beacon etc., would have been more reasonable. If you are going to leave crap in orbit around the Earth or the rest of the solar system you may as well make it useful and reusable crap. I see Musk’s stunt as thoughtless egomania and nothing more.

    1. ” If you are going to leave crap in orbit around the Earth or the rest of the solar system you may as well make it useful and reusable crap.”

      That’s why we’ve placed lawyers and politicians into space.

    2. New rockets typically get tested with boilerplate models of their eventual payload. Those literally are weights shaped like the payload to come. That’s no different than what’s done now, except that this is a good joke. I don’t see people objecting to the conventional method of testing new rockets, so it’s a bit odd so many people are getting their panties in a bunch now.

      Besides, a supply of whatever on this trajectory is as useless as this car. You won’t ever get to it again. So why not have some fun?

  9. Now Safelite can do an April Fools Day commercial. Send up a Safelite themed Dragon capsule with e tech to repair a space debris chip in the Tesla’s windshield. “Safelite Repair, Safelite in Space.”

  10. The reason for the Tesla in space I thought was rather obvious yet very few people seem to have thought likewise.

    Purely and simply cheap advertising.

    Space x, Tesla and Elon Musk just got way more attention than any overprice ad during some “sporting” event. And they got to test their new rocket as well.

    1. And they used an old car, so if it burned up on the launch pad, far less egg in their face. And they still get a global advertisement, maybe even more eyes watching. They could spend 50 years of advertisement budget on this one gimmick, it is not like people have stopped talking about the first soft moon landing Luna-9 in 1966, or have they ?

    2. Every news item (and reddit headlines) mention how it’s a nice and clever marketing combination with advertising for Tesla while testing a rocket.
      Not sure where you find that majority that didn’t think of that, Afghanistan? (sorry, I went with a funny at the risk of sounding a bit sneering. Humor first!)

  11. A Tesla Auto in space makes sense, you have higher end consumer electronics and materials, manufactured using relatively inexpensive manufacture processes. It’s already an integrated system and capable of carrying a test payload, a space suit. All of which can be tested for survivability in space under harsh conditions for as long as possible. If any or all of the technology survives the trip, it answers a ton of questions about what is really necessary and the costs.

  12. Perhaps the amateur radio community should petition Elon Musk to finance the construction of a constellation of amateur radio communications satellites and putting them into orbit. Yea I know that isn’t the publicity stunt Musk is looking for, but putting a Tesla car in a solar orbit, isn’t going to sell Tesla cars, so he should stick to terrestrial exhibitions of his cars, and use earth orbits of practical satellites to promote his space launch capabilities.

    1. Maybe for GPS or some sort of telemetry type auto function maybe? Now for communications… I almost want to say that may be why Steve Job’s died (not sure if assassinated on some days) from cancer. The conspiracy is that he wanted to start his own telecommunications satellite network like unique HD formatting, though with a unique carrier signal. That was the next system he wanted to invest in.

  13. I wonder what the point of this post was, as it doesn’t really SAY much of anything. But then I see the number of comments and remember that clicks = money and it’s obvious. But since I’m already here, I figure a proper comment is in order.

    One thing you need to remember is that getting into space isn’t the rarity it was even 5 years ago. Between SpaceX and the other up-and-coming launch providers, there’s no shortage of affordable rides to space for cubesats and the like. Especially if you are a school, in which case NASA has programs to get your payload into space at low or no cost.

    So why gamble with the satellite your school spent so much time and money to build? No launch is 100% guaranteed, but given the 50/50 shot of blowing up that Elon was giving the Heavy, I’d rather wait it out if it was my payload.

    But perhaps more to the point, they are a private company and can do whatever the hell they damn well please. Way to go SpaceX, that was a hell of a show yesterday.

  14. I saw the news on this on a few channels and oddly enough only the Chinese news actually had a SpaceX guy to talk about it, and he did mention that the car would be exposed to a lot of things like temperature changes and radiation and solar wind and aging and that that would cause wear and tear when he was asked about the ‘millions of years in orbit thing
    Anyway the point is that if you want to now then you should contact SpaceX themselves and not hope on others in the media to ask relevant questions.

  15. This combined with the Boring Flamethrower is a real window into Elon’s psychology. He’s doing calculated “wild” things to help feed his cult of personality so his loyal minions and investors stay inspired. This guy is building an empire fore himself. He hopes to dominate the auto, transportation, energy, and eventually communications industries when he starts using all this lifting capacity to provide superior cell phone service to the entire planet. (It’s NOT all about Mars) All this combined with cryptocurrencies could synergise into an industrial machine the world has never seen, bigger than the steel/coal/railroad synergy of age-old. We could be looking at the worlds first multi-trillionaire and we would all be his minions. (not me, business partner and friend, maybe, but not minion) This guy is brilliant, kind of like another dynamic, tweeting, extremely influential multi-billionaire I can think of of whom I’m also fond of.

    1. I was thinking the same thing.. but another thing i was thinking is if I would have sent the Tesla into space, there would be an RTG or something to keep the battery charged, and a few other minor additions to make it do useful satellite things. but there’s not exactly a lot of trunk space in that car. He said the battery would last about 12 hours. if the battery is just powering the radio I would expect it to last much longer than that, unless they downsized the battery.. and if it’s not the real David Bowie inside, i would think there would be sensors and something to transmit data inside. i wonder if they deflated the tires, are the batteries gonna get all puffy, and how much does it cost for the common man to buy one of those space suits? i’ve got more questions than answers.. having this thing live stream 24/7 and have some means of charging the batteries, and its own website to visit, like or whatever, seems that would have more entertainment value than a 4 hour YT stream replaying over and over, by random channels, advertised as ‘LIVE’. would be cool if he would pop the trunk and deploy some satellites, or send one to the moon that can function as a self driving/remotely driven lunar rover.

      1. “battery would last about 12 hours”: Probably just due to the temperature drop they will cease to function… if they are there at all.
        “i wonder if they deflated the tires”: The extra 15 psi you gain from surface to orbit wouldn’t matter much. Then again, you will have a rather good solar collector with the carbon black in them so they may explode from heat if not deflated. My money is on run-flats and no valve stems.

  16. It has been disappointing but not in any way surprising to see all the whining from the cave dwellers complaining about SpaceX. It helps explain why post Apollo we have seen little advancement in Space Exploration involving humans. Little did I suspect that when, as a kid, I saw Armstrong leave that famous footprint that 50 years later we would have not escaped what is the Earths upper atmosphere.

    Elon Musk has done more in a decade, on minimal funding, than the incumbents have managed to do with trillions of dollars of public subsidy over decades.

    To this end he requires a few key things to keep moving forward:
    • A steady supply of the best of the generation STEAM grads wanting to buy into the Mars dream and be every bit as passionate and enthusiastic as he is.
    • Public understanding and support to offset the strongly biased and often negative press that comes from the incumbents that are seeing their safe income bases rapidly eroding.
    • Investors to help when necessary to keep progress occurring in the face of the occasional clash with the laws of physics.
    The Tesla launch has generated some of the most surreal iconic images of the generation which wove in a tip of the hat to other generational heroes such as Bowie and Douglas Adams. The vehicle has become a monument to a pivotal test flight that drew a new line in the sand on what is possible and marked it with a far richer imagery to which the general public can buy into.
    • Tesla motors has just got some of the most mind blowing material for an ad campaign.
    • Kids contemplating science know which super kewl boss they want to go and work for.
    • Politicians probably want to give this guy some respect as there may be some public blowback if they fail to do so.
    • Billions of people on the planet now know who Elon Musk is.
    • Most importantly don’t ever write off any of Elon Musk’s so called “crazy ideas”. Most sadly like Armstrong you may find yourself on the wrong side of history.

    And so this brings us to the most important goal which seems to drive Musk. In a word Humanity 2.0, the Mars backup drive. Those who deride him as an aspiring mega-industrialist fail to understand his driving goal and it’s implications. Perhaps they should just smile and thank him for seeing to the security and longevity of the human race by providing an option to avoid the Great Filter. Little chance of this given both the general level of ignorance of science that exists these days and the willingness of the most ignorant to scream the loudest in the media.

    Sad to see this community fan that flame.

    1. Don’t forget a few people needed to be shot dead at NASA and ODNI as well as some other international agencies as well as others in leadership positions exposed for partying with the kiddos and in some cases where the Vatican has came out in the past… murdering the kidnapped children they’d molest off the street. I think some of the kills are public or at least were at one time… and I’m not talking about the crazy female astronaut murders either.

  17. Now that is public engagement. 14,130,345 views of the 4 hour silent video of Starman Live on the SpaceX Youtube channel. I doubt that launching a concrete mass simulator would have attracted such a large audience as a chillin’ dude in a sportscar cruising off to Mars achieved…

  18. launching the tesla is the perfect choice hands down because:
    – it is extremely cool unlike launching a concrete block to space
    – it does not cost much (since it is elon’s old roadster collecting dust)
    calling the car in space is ‘junk’ is stupid, it should rather be called ‘gem’
    and space junk orbiting the sun can’t cause any problems , only space junk orbiting the earth will
    since the car orbits the sun it won’t hurt.

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