Offworld Charisma: Is SpaceX Sending a Tesla Roadster to Mars?

In September, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk spoke at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress about his updated plans for Mars. According to the revamped plan’s timetable, SpaceX will send at least two unmanned cargo flights to the Red Planet by 2022, with a manned mission following by 2024.

Earlier this December, Musk tweeted that the payload for SpaceX’s inaugural trip to Mars would be his own original Tesla Roadster. He hinted at his reasoning for choosing the Roadster in another tweet: “I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future.” In another post, Musk even promised to show photos soon.

Though most originally assumed this was a joke, speculation grew when a photo posted in a SpaceX subreddit in the late hours of December 21. The photo appears to show a Tesla Roadster sitting on top of what looks like a SpaceX payload attachment.

Image Credit: Reddit

The image made rounds in a NASA Spaceflight forum, where users tried to make sense of the plan by creating scaled images of the Roadster inside a SpaceX fairing.

Image Credit: Elon Musk Instagram

Then, midday on December 22, Musk ramped things up another notch, posting seven photos to Instagram that appear to show the real deal. As promised, the photos show a cherry-red Tesla roadster ready to be encased within (we assume) a brand-new Falcon Heavy rocket.

SpaceX Oddities

While the payload might seem crazy, in typical Musk fashion, there is a reason behind it. As Musk explained in his Instagram post, test flights for new rockets usually contain concrete or steel blocks in order to simulate the mass they’ll carry during flight. In the case of the Falcon Heavy’s inaugural flight, Musk writes that this “seemed extremely boring.”

“Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel,” he writes. “The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”

It makes sense not to load a rocket’s inaugural flight with expensive electronics and science equipment; as SpaceX knows well, it’s not uncommon for rockets to experience errors or even blow up during test flights. However, given the cost of a Roadster and the growing problem of space junk around our planet, one might question the wastefulness of the planned test.

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