Launching a Tesla into Orbit, SpaceX Proves That Space Travel Can be Affordable

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on February 13, 2018
Traver Kennedy
Home  / Blog  /  Launching a Tesla into Orbit, SpaceX Proves That Space Travel Can be Affordable

The title of our article would have sounded like a joke just a few months ago. Yet, we saw it with our own eyes from our headquarters here at the Kennedy Space Center last week―a huge rocket taking an electric car, a Tesla, to orbit the sun. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, performed the unthinkable once again. His space company tested a new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, the largest in operation and second largest ever after the Saturn rockets that NASA used to take men to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Traditionally, when testing rockets designed to send probes and satellites to space, the payloads comprise heavy materials, like cement blocks or scraps of metal. However, this non-traditional CEO decided to send his personal, cherry-red Tesla Roadster sports car instead.

Now, there is an electric car orbiting the sun. It was taken there by a rocket that used kerosene, liquid oxygen, and hydrogen fuel at various stages of its voyage in order to leave Earth’s gravity and gain momentum to orbit around the sun and not around our planet. A BBC article reporting on the event states, “The Tesla and its passenger [a mannequin] have been dispatched into an elliptical orbit around the sun that reaches out as far as the planet Mars.”

From now on, somewhere up there, if you look very closely, you will see a flying electric car. 

A Game-Changer for the Space Industry

The bigger the rocket, the more powerful it is at putting cargo into space further from Earth. This is why the Saturn rockets were much larger than the Space Shuttle. They had to take men and machines to the moon, which is 238,900 miles away, or over 1,000-times further than the International Space Station (orbiting at a mere 220 miles from Earth), which the Space Shuttle was designed to serve.

“Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt.” This was Elon’s tweet the night of February 6 announcing that the Falcon Heavy rocket was set on its path to deliver its sportsy payload to its permanent destination: orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The Tesla is expected to arrive there around October 2018.

Meanwhile, a game-changing milestone for the space industry took place. As the BBC reported, “Two [of the three rocket boosters] came back to touchdown zones on the Florida coast just south of Kennedy. Their landing legs made contact with the ground virtually at the same time,” and quoted Musk as saying, “That was epic, that’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, literally.” The article goes on to report, “The third booster was due to settle on a drone ship stationed several hundred kilometers out at sea. Unfortunately, it was unable to slow its descent by re-igniting sufficient engines, missed the target vessel and was destroyed as it hit the water at some 500km/h.”

The Fastest Traveling Electric Car Ever

When the boosters landed, the BBC reported, “The upper-stage of the Falcon Heavy, with its Tesla cargo, was heading on a trajectory that would hopefully take it towards Mars’ orbit.” Once in orbit, the Roadster will travel roughly at the same speed as Mars travels around the sun, 54,000 miles-per-hour. This will make it the fastest car ever―maybe for millions of years, if nobody else has the crazy idea of launching a car into space.

The symbolism of an electric car orbiting the sun for millions of years is not lost. This is an industry that was transformed by Tesla a decade ago when his cars proved that speed, power, and even looks were not compromises that one had to make when driving an electric car. Since then, prices have come down, and driving range has gone up. It is only a matter of years before electric cars prove they can outperform those powered by gasoline in every aspect that matters to consumers. For now, the fastest car ever is electric.

The Real Transformative Breakthrough: Making Space Travel Affordable

Everything about what happened here at the Kennedy Space Center last week is remarkable. The successful launch and recovery of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket marks a new kind of space industry that is far cheaper to operate, more efficient, and in the hands of private industry, with the support of NASA when it makes sense. As the BBC article pointed out, “It is the low cost―brought about through the recovery and reuse of the boosters―that Elon Musk believes will be a game-changer when allied to the new performance,” and quoted him as saying, “It’ll be like trying to sell an aircraft where one aircraft company has a reusable aircraft and all the other companies had aircraft that were single-use where you would parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash-land randomly somewhere. Crazy as that sounds―that’s how the rocket business works.”

The approach to making space launches affordable enables NASA to focus on those missions that do not have profit in mind but take humanity’s knowledge and understanding of our universe forward, such as interplanetary probes, which have been extremely successful since the moon program was closed. On the other hand, companies like SpaceX can focus on launching commercial payloads, from satellites to probes, at prices that the market can afford. Private companies can even be hired by NASA to launch their space payloads economically.

Launching his personal Roadster into orbit around the sun was a very tangible and exciting way to give meaning to the payload that the Falcon Heavy needed to carry on this test launch. What we saw happen to the space industry last week is the transformational result of relentless work and technological improvements on many fronts over a period of decades. Similarly, our industry, energy, is experiencing a similar transformation driven by the same factors, including Elon’s work on batteries, solar power…and flying electric cars.


Photography courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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