Thursday, February 15, 2018

Talking About the Tesla

By Emily Lakdawalla
Emily Lakdawalla is a science writer, author of the forthcoming book The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Does Its Job.

When I first heard about Elon Musk’s plan to launch his own cherry-red Tesla roadster as a dummy mass aloft the inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy, I was nonplussed. Something had to be in that rocket, and there’s no question that the car would be more fun than a block of concrete. But it struck me as a vulgar display of conspicuous consumption, like lighting a cigar with a flaming hundred-dollar bill. NASA - and all the other government-run space agencies - put so much thought and care into the symbols that launch on their spacecraft: the Pioneer plaque, the Voyager golden record, the Martian library on the Phoenix lander. This, by contrast, appeared as one man’s display of wealth and power: I’m rich enough to throw away this car on the rocket I built.

And then the Falcon Heavy launched, and the launch was picture-perfect, especially the stunning synchronized landings of the two side boosters. Seeing that happen, live, while I was flying in an airplane, brought home what a revolutionary moment this was. I was thrilled and inspired, and anticipating the momentous firing of the upper stage that would take it on a trans-Mars trajectory (though not actually to Mars). And, I have to admit, I loved seeing the Starman (named in honor of David Bowie) sitting nonchalantly in the red convertible, the GPS screen reading “DON’T PANIC” (an homage to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy), as the gorgeous globe of Earth passed behind the slowly rotating scene. My friend Judy Schmidt correctly identified (I think) why I found joy in the image -- it’s because of a lifetime immersed in American imagery of the car, the open road, and the freedom and wide-open possibility it makes me feel. Maybe this was art.

My feelings about this event were comically opposing. Through the rest of the afternoon and the next day, I saw a lot of other thoughtful people on Twitter grappling with the significance of the Falcon Heavy and Starman launch. However, two things made that conversation fraught. The first was a brief shot from the SpaceX launch broadcast of celebrating Tesla employees. Conspicuously, they were all male, and almost entirely light-skinned. It was a punch in the gut to the white women and people of color feeling otherwise inspired by the launch.

The second challenge to thoughtful online conversation was the disproportionate response levied on anything seen as critical of Elon Musk by his fans. Anecdotally, those of us who identify as non-male, non-white, and/or non-cis felt like we bore the brunt of that response, and many felt un-free to express their opinions. Some people even locked down their accounts to hunker down and avoid continuing attacks.

I wanted to make sure that those voices got to express their thoughts and feelings about the significance of the Falcon Heavy launch and the Roadster’s journey beyond Mars’ orbital distance, so I invited a number of people to share their opinions with me, below. I figured that in joining together in one post we could have a more nuanced discussion and derive strength from sharing a stage, even though our opinions are diverse. I thank Divya M. Persaud, Karen James, Carolina Agurto, Karina Rojas, Javiera Rey, Upulie Divisekera, Manu Saadia, and Judy Schmidt for sharing their thoughts with me, and also Alice Gorman for permitting me to excerpt a blog post of hers.

Divya M. Persaud
Planetary Scientist, writer, and composer

Minutes after the Falcon Heavy launch, I wrote, “watching a launch is always a marriage of realizing your deepest want and the feeling of your soul ascending.” The intense thrill, sense of community with my fellow humans, and sheer awe from watching—socially participating in—the Shuttle launches as a child are not unrelated to my trajectory in space science research. However, that “deepest want” is not just my own aspiration to see space, but also the dream that we as humanity might materially realize the universal human right of access to space and awareness of our cosmic neighborhood. While I deeply respect the workers in the private sector engineering such incredible feats, there is something sour in witnessing the launch of expensive space trash, lacking accessible connection to those of us on the ground (many of us have discussed the merits of a suite of citizen science instruments in place of a Tesla). The flashiness of the payload also seems symbolically tied to the serial exclusion of certain communities from STEM jobs and, for example, the exploitation of workers in Musk’s other companies and in the corporations historically behind our “greatest” innovations. It is hard, always, but I believe increasingly pressing for us—as avid lovers of space, and as space scientists—to contextualize anything and everything that claims to represent humanity beyond the Earth, regardless or perhaps because of this intense wonder. Nothing we do occurs in a true vacuum.

Karen James
Independent molecular ecologist in Bar Harbor, Maine

It’s hard to believe that at this moment there is a sports car in orbit around the Sun with a mannequin driver named after a David Bowie character. I love it, but mostly I hate it. The sheer power of the Falcon Heavy rocket, its promise for future crewed missions to Mars, and the stunning, synchronized booster landing had me singing along with the event’s David Bowie soundtrack: “look at those cavemen go!” But when the payload was revealed to be Elon Musk’s ego in the shape of his own Tesla Roadster, our caveman days didn’t seem so far in the past. With all the potential scientific or educational payloads, that SpaceX chose to send the car, “driven” by a mannequin named Starman, seemed not only a missed opportunity but a paean to rich, white, male celebrity. Ideas like engagement, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization were consigned to the Roadster’s nonexistent backseat.

Star Tres
Astronomers Carolina Agurto, Karina Rojas and Javiera Rey

Of course if we just consider the payload itself, it is not very useful in a scientific way. But we choose to focus in the bigger picture and see what he actually achieved with this. In general, only space lovers watch rocket launches or follow the progress of science missions, but in this case most people were not indifferent to the Falcon Heavy launch, and it was because of the payload. We feel that sometimes science can be just about doing something cool, it’s what makes us feel like kids. Creating new things, playing, experimenting. We might find a use to the things we discover or create at some point, or maybe we won’t. In this case, the main thing is the rocket itself, which will be very very useful for future space missions. The car and its driver are just the “cool” touch. It is space trash, yes, but it won’t hurt anyone if we don’t start sending cars to space on a regular basis. And finally, we see it as a big advertising campaign, which is always useful for engaging people in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math]. You never know how many future scientists we may gain after this, and that wouldn’t have happened if we were sending a cube of concrete instead of the car. 

Upulie Divisekera
Molecular biologist and science communicator

The Falcon Heavy Launch has been a highlight of the year. It was a joy to see the boosters land so effortlessly. Being able to watch the process of development has been a privilege. Space X has made extraordinary leaps in technological development at a much lower cost than NASA programs, and it has thrilled the planet to watch this progress.

Then the Tesla was released into space.

It’s lovely to think of Bowie’s anthem and Douglas Adams’ immortal words hurtling through space for millennia to come. But there’s something about the symbolism I found a little off. It’s definitely inspired and enthralled millions. For me, however, while I relate to the objects he used, ultimately, I see this payload as a personal statement and a personal act. These items are things that mean something to Musk. They represent him, his company, his power and wealth, the burgeoning privatisation of space.

I do not begrudge him these things, but for me, this is not what I want or expected of the space race as a small child watching in awe as space shuttle launches became a regular event in the 80s.  I would have hoped that we could move on from space travel as a nationalistic power play to a unified human effort involving all countries and peoples. Instead, the Tesla represents Musk and his personal mission.

After the launch, a photoshopped image of Carl Sagan holding a sign saying “Remember, no billboards in space” did the rounds of social media. The original photo shows Sagan holding the Pioneer plaque: an engraved Image of a man, a woman, a map and guide to earth. Later, the Voyager record that he helped design sought to include all the world, from is vast planes to small corners, music and birdsong, some attempt at our totality for whatever beings might discover It. Forty years later, we have instead launched what is effectively expensive, personal space junk.

I want more. I want more from space. The universe belongs to no one and everyone. Space is our chance to make space exploration a truly human endeavour.

Manu Saadia
Author of Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek and writer at

In the cold and emptiness of interplanetary space, that Tesla car and its mannequin will live longer than the human species itself. It is as significant and fateful a gesture as sending the Voyagers away from the ecliptic plane. It's the modern day equivalent of cave paintings.

And so the Lascaux cave paintings of our civilization, what we’ll leave behind for future archaeologists (human or not), are closer in function to an Egyptian funerary boat than to the assured drawings of paleolithic artists. I catch myself wishing than more art - and thus more thought and philosophy - had been put into this act of memory on behalf of all of us. If you are going to speak for Earth across deep time, beyond the expected lifespan of our own species, you should not go for the facile and the whimsical. This is too serious. 

You may not share my opinion and that is perfectly fine and good - but the very fact that we are having this discussion ex-post-facto is in itself deeply problematic. It’s not so much the undignified and altogether inartful content of the package that I find deplorable - it’s the fact that it speaks for me and for humanity at large, whether I like it or not. The only person who had a say in it was the company owner. I am quite certain this is one of the worst ways to decide who speaks for all of us.

Judy Schmidt
Amateur space image processor and an administrator of Starship Asterisk

I would like to contrast Elon's Roadster with the launch of the Humanity Star, a reflective polyhedron released into orbit only a couple of weeks prior. Both are clearly works of art to me, and how we react to art can sometimes offer insight into ourselves. Humanity Star appears to me to have been created to be accessible not just to one group of people, but to everyone with a dark enough sky. Indeed, it is even named for all of us. Conversely, Elon's Roadster was created for a single man, and appeals largely to a single demographic who, if not enamored with Elon, is at least fond of shiny red convertibles. It is therefore ironic and troubling to me that Humanity Star was met with such immediate and sustained revulsion by many astronomers—a group that ostensibly advocates for greater inclusion and accessibility—while the Roadster and its lovable mannequin launched straight into their open hearts. It could be said that it is all a matter of taste, but Humanity Star was not only mocked, it was ruthlessly attacked, even though neither object poses much of a risk to astronomers' work. Why? Because Humanity Star, in all its consideration, failed to convey a dream. That dream is to conquer space, not merely to appreciate it.

Alice Gorman
Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

Excerpted from her article in The Conversation

The Tesla Roadster might be an expendable dummy payload, but it’s primary purpose is symbolic communication. There’s a lot going on here.

There’s an element of performing excessive wealth by wasting it. Giving up such an expensive car (a new model costs US$200,000) could be seen as a sacrifice for space, but it’s also like burning $100 notes to show how how little they mean.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Victor Turner argued that symbols can encompass two contradictory meanings at the same time. Thus, the sports car in orbit symbolises both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalised in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armour against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality.

The spacesuit is also about death. It’s the essence of the uncanny: the human simulacrum, something familiar that causes uneasiness, or even a sense of horror. The Starman was never alive, but now he’s haunting space.

Every object humans have launched into the solar system is a statement: each tells the story of our attitudes to space at a particular point in time.