Elon Musk fully intends to put a red sports car made by a company that he runs into an enormous rocket ship made by another company that he runs and fire both into Mars orbit. The car, as it hurtles into space, will be playing a song by David Bowie on repeat.
It goes without saying that the song will be “Space Oddity”—and that this plan was announced, like so many of Musk’s business decisions, in a cryptic message on Twitter over the weekend. A person familiar with the launch plan at SpaceX Inc. confirmed that it is real.
This SpaceX launch slated for January will be noteworthy for reasons that go beyond the payload, a cherry-red Tesla Roadster owned by Musk. It will also mark a coming out for the much-awaited Falcon Heavy, in a launch slated for the same Florida launchpad that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon. This is how the founder, chief executive officer, and largest shareholder of both SpaceX and Tesla Inc. does cross-marketing promotion. He has even coined a tagline for the event: “Red car for a red planet.”
SpaceX currently flies its Falcon 9 rocket for customers that include NASA, commercial satellite operators, and the U.S. military. Falcon Heavy is a far more powerful rocket that has been in development for years. While a Falcon 9 has nine Merlin engines, a Falcon Heavy has 27. The first test, which will precede the attempt to fire a Tesla Roadster into Mars orbit, will be a “static fire” in which all the engines are activated at once.
“We wanted to fly Heavy this year,” Gwynne Shotwell told recently. “We should be able to static fire this year and fly a couple of weeks right after that.”
SpaceX has Falcon Heavy launches for satellite customers and the U.S. military on its manifest. There’s a legitimate reason, beyond showmanship, to keep the maiden flight clear of paying customers.
“Any time you have a new rocket launching, you’re going to learn a lot,” said Phil Larson, a former space policy adviser to President Barack Obama who worked for SpaceX and is now at the University of Colorado. “Just like the first flight of a new jumbo jet doesn’t go with a full complement of passengers, it makes sense to do a launch where you can learn a lot but the payload isn’t mission critical.”
SpaceX has had a strong year. The closely held company, based in Hawthorne, Calif., has already flown 16 missions in 2017, double the number in 2016, and is slated to ferry cargo to the International Space Station on Dec. 8 as part of its contract with NASA.
Tesla’s year has been more muddled. The public company unveiled its Model 3, a more affordable electric sedan, with great fanfare in late July but has yet to prove it can manufacture the car in high volume. The automaker built just 260 Model 3s in the third quarter, far short of its forecast of 1,500. Tesla hasn’t said how many cars it expects to make in the final three months of 2017. The company said last month that it expected to reach a rate of 5,000 Model 3s per week by late March—a quarter later than it projected—because of issues with battery production at its gigafactory near Reno, Nev.
Last month, during the unveiling of Tesla’s forthcoming Semi truck, Musk made a surprise announcement that the company is taking reservations for a next-generation Roadster that won’t be ready until at least 2020.
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