Update Saturday: There has been some confusion today because Elon Musk told me The edge on Saturday morning that he “completely made it up” about sending a Tesla Roadster to Mars. However, in multiple emails with Ars on Saturday afternoon, Musk confirmed that this plan is indeed real. Another SpaceX official also said the Tesla charge was very real.
Original message: Previously, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said he plans to launch the “silliest thing we can imagine” on the first launch of the Falcon Heavy. This is partly because the missile is experimental – there is a non-trivial chance that the missile will explode on the launch pad or shortly after launch. Partly it’s also because Musk is a master showman who knows how to attract attention.
On Friday night, Musk tweeted what that charge would be – his ‘midnight cherry Tesla Roadster’. And the car will play Space oddity, by David Bowie, which begins “Ground Control to Major Tom.” Oh, and the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket will send the Tesla into orbit around Mars. “Will be in deep space for about a billion years if it doesn’t explode during ascent,” Musk added. Ars was able to confirm from a company source on Friday night that this is definitely a legitimate payload.
Earlier on Friday, Musk also said the Falcon Heavy launch would come “next month” (i.e. January) from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The company could attempt a “static fire” test of the rocket’s three cores and 27 motors on the launch pad this month. Since the Falcon Heavy rocket has often been delayed, launch dates should not be taken at literally, but it looks like the rocket and its hardware are almost ready to fly.
Silly payloads are something of a tradition for SpaceX. Earlier this year, Musk explained that, inspired by a friend’s suggestion and British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Cheese Shop skit, the 2010 Dragon spacecraft demonstration flight carried a giant wheel of French Gruyére cheese in its payload.
In this case, sending a Tesla to Mars (maybe this vehicle) wouldn’t just be flamboyant, it would provide some cross-promotion for Musk’s other big company. Launching a Roadster would also send a message to NASA and those who fund the space agency: SpaceX’s new rocket could reach Mars, and the privately developed booster could play an important role in any plans the agency has to get people to the send moon. No private company has ever launched a spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit, let alone to another planet.
“The launch of the largest rocket since the U.S. Moon booster is a game-changer for the future of our nation’s space exploration and for national security,” said Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado and a former SpaceX official. “The fact that the development of such capability is coming from US industry is a very positive sign for our economic competitiveness.”