Updated: Jul 15, 2019
A lot has been written about The Starman currently gliding through space in Elon Musk’s Tesla. Is this a rich man’s indulgence, an ad for his car company, and without real scientific value? Well, yes. But that’s not all it is.
There are so many interesting aspects to this that it took me a while (and some hours gazing at the live stream) to organize my thoughts. First, let’s deal with the whole “no science payload” thing, then we’ll get to the fun and interesting stuff. Could he have packed a small science experiment into the backseat of the roadster? Yes, but given the limitations of “car in space” that would’ve limited what could be included, and I’m not sure that anything he could’ve come up with would’ve added anything significant to our body of knowledge considering that the International Space Station is doing a mind-boggling amount of science 24/7—and has been for years. We’ve sent rovers and probes all over the solar system, so I’m not sure putting science in a suitcase for the Starman’s journey would’ve made much of a contribution to solar system science. Would it have been good PR to include a science package? Probably. For instance, on the ISS science experiments designed by school kids are always popular, so it would’ve been likewise if included in the Tesla roadster—but then Musk likely would’ve had to contend with complaints that he was “using kids” to further his own ends. Also, he admitted that he thought there was a fair chance the Falcon Heavy (remember that—the historic ground-breaking rocket science that actually launched The Starman?) would blow up or otherwise fail, so a really pricey science package might’ve been just burning money. Nobody puts science payloads into experimental rockets; they wait until the tech is reliable.
Yes, but The Starman in the Tesla roadster is still cheesy rich man self-promotion, isn’t it? Well, you can certainly look at it that way. But that’s not the only way to look at it, and it’s arguably the least interesting way of looking at it. If sneering at the Starman makes you happy, go for it. The rest of us will be getting our kicks in a different way. I live streamed The Starman in the Tesla on a 49” TV for hours. The resolution was amazing and the scene was compelling in a way I didn’t expect. The play of light and shadow as roadster’s orientation changed in relationship to the sun and the Earth was mesmerizing. Because this was at the beginning of the Starman’s journey the car is still shiny and I could see the reflection of the Earth spreading out across the body of the car in some shots. That smooth shiny surface which glows and reflects so well will deteriorate in space, becoming pitted by tiny particles and degraded by radiation, as will The Starman himself. So, if you want to see The Starman in the Tesla while they both still look good, sooner is better. Sooner is also better because at some point the Earth is going to move further and further away — assuming the various projected trajectories prove correct—and the lovely views of The Starman “driving” a roadster (“where we’re going we don’t need roads”) with the Earth in the background will go away, leaving The Starman cruising through the blackness of space, with less glimmer from the sun, and the Earth a blue marble in the distance.
In the meantime we have this surreal thing: a spacesuited dummy in a Tesla roadster, hand on the wheel, cruising around the Earth. It’s like some kind of grand art installation in space. Unlike the disco ball recently launched into orbit, it’s less likely to screw up astronomical observations all over the world because it’s not meant to be flashing and it’s not supposed to stay in Earth orbit (where it will actually end up is still a matter of speculation as of this writing). There is nothing very imaginative, delightful, or compelling about a disco ball, but the image of a spaceman in a snazzy open-topped car is the sort of thing that fires the imagination. It’s like an amalgamation of science fiction and fantasy. We have an apparent human in a space suit (science fiction) in a car (earth vehicle) instead of a spaceship. When Whitman wrote “Song of the Open Road”, cars had not been invented. Now we have a wandering Starman in a roadster. There is something compelling about that; perhaps it’s akin to the human desire to fly. As a species we want to soar, we want to go fast and far, we want to go where we have never been, we want to go where no one has ever been: we are explorers in our imaginations. Most of the people living on this planet in the 21st century are explorers only in their imaginations; getting somewhere, especially somewhere new or far is expensive, not to mention brain-breakingly difficult. Most of this planet has not been explored because most of it is under water. We only know bits and pieces of what lies beneath the surface of the blue part of our blue planet. We are learning more all the time thanks to technology, but the ability to go is so difficult that few people have ever been very far below the surface of our oceans, just like few people have left the planet and gone into space. It’s a very wow-ing thing and if it was easy we’d all cruise the depths of the ocean or zip around the solar system — and beyond. If only it was as cheap, safe, and easy as getting into a car, or onto bus. (I am so tempted to write a story about a bus tour of the solar system!)
The Starman in the Tesla roadster is compelling because we can see ourselves in that car cruising through space. We can’t as easily see ourselves in space shuttles, or other capsules — so called “tin cans”— that have been launched into space, or more modern modules launched to the space station. The space station is interesting, but it doesn’t look like home; it’s more like living inside a very big machine. The Tesla roadster is a car. Cars are familiar everyday objects. If you live someplace where you can livestream The Starman then you’ve probably ridden in a car. (There are people on Earth who do not live in industrialized societies with automobiles and tons of technology at their fingertips, but cars are pretty ubiquitous for most other people.)
I think we like science fiction not just because it lets us visit strange and wonderful places in our imagination, but because it makes it easy to do so, or if not easy, then at least something we can easily see ourselves doing. The Starman in the roadster is what we yearn for in our hearts; to be able to jump in the car and go, anywhere. I don’t mean we literally want to drive cars in space; we realize that is physically impossible. The Starman in the car is a powerful symbol, a metaphor, something that captures our imagination and lets us soar with it. We need to daydream, to sit back, relax, and cruise with The Starman. We need to feed our brains with this kind of imaginative image. Yes, there’s all kinds of practical stuff we need to do, there’s all kinds of technological stuff we need achieve. There is always something, and there always will be. But we should take a little time to enjoy and delight in things that are wonderfully surreal, imaginative, things that make us smile, and dream.