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Elon Musk’s Starman – Sitting in a Tin Can

And I’m floating in a most peculiar way / And the stars look very different today / For here / Am I sitting in a tin can / Far above the world / Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do  (David Bowie “Space Oddity“)

When I was young I can remember the excitement of watching the Apollo launches; of being woken up by my parents to watch Neil Armstrong step out onto the moon. We’ve become rather blasé about it these days; space launches are rather taken for granted and go unnoticed for the most part unless something goes radically wrong, or we have a personal investment – for example when Tim Peak was manning the International Space Station.

Elon MuskElon Musk has added some pizzazz back into space flight and his test launch of Falcon Heavy is an example of that.  As you can see from the video below, this was a test of the Falcon Heavy Rocket by the company SpaceX.  The successful launch means that Falcon Heavy is now the world’s most powerful rocket. It has 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, is capable of carrying twice the weight of any other operational rocket – and has the potential to send modules, and potentially people, into deep space.  It also managed to land two of its three booster rockets perfectly – ready for refit and reuse – this cuts the cost of a launch flight to about $90 million (compared to the estimated $1 billion per launch for the SLS rocket NASA is working on).

Impressive as the Falcon Heavy is, it isn’t particularly the potential of this system that has captured the imagination.  In typical Showman fashion Elon Musk created an unusual payload for his rocket.  He launched his $100,000 electric Tesla Roadster into space. The car is manned by Starman, a dummy astronaut,  David Bowie’s Space Oddity played through the speakers, Don’t Panic from Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is stuck clearly to the dashboard, the circuit boards are transcribed with the words “Made on Earth by humans” and an Arch Mission 5D, laser optical storage device, designed to cope with the harsh conditions of space, is in the car. On the disc is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book series – the sci-fi book about the cyclical nature of civilisations that Musk terms “Brilliant”.

The Tesla orbited Earth for six hours, passing through, and surviving, bombardment from radiation by the Van Allen Belts that surround the Earth and then being boosted by the rocket’s upper stage into orbit around the Sun.  Originally the plan was that, as the car travels around the solar system, it would intersect Mars – but the boost has set it on a trajectory beyond Mars and it will orbit through the asteroid belt instead.

While the Falcon Heavy now prepares to operate commercially, we’re looking forward to what Elon Musk might do next – his ambition to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 2020s has moved a lot closer.

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”  (Elon Musk)

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