Always willing to up the stakes of an already difficult situation, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the first flight of his company’s Falcon Heavy rocket will be used to send a Tesla Roadster into space. Musk first tweeted out the idea on Friday evening, and the payload was confirmed on Saturday.
But confirmation followed a bizarre exchange between The Verge and Musk. After Musk tweeted the plan, we asked him to confirm that it was real. Musk replied to us first by email, confirming that it was real. Then, after The Verge published a story about the plan, Musk sent us a response in a direct message on Twitter saying he “totally made it up.” We now know that response was false; a person familiar with the matter told The Verge Saturday evening that the payload is in fact real.
The first Falcon Heavy’s “payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity,” Musk wrote on Twitter, referencing the famous David Bowie song. “Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.”
Musk has spoken openly about the non-zero chance that the Falcon Heavy will explode during its first flight, and because of that he once said he wanted stick the “silliest thing we can imagine” on top of the rocket. Now we know what he meant. It’s unclear at the time of publish whether SpaceX has received any necessary approvals for this plan.
The “silliest [payload] we can imagine,” indeed
Falcon Heavy is the followup to SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It’s a more powerful rocket that the company hopes to use for missions to the Moon and Mars. It was originally supposed to take flight back in 2013 or 2014, but its maiden flight is now pegged for January 2018, according to Musk. (The company has been testing parts of the Falcon Heavy architecture over the last year, and has been busy readying the same launchpad that the Apollo 11 mission blasted off from for this flight.)
Falcon Heavy is, in overly simple terms, three of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. It therefore will be capable of creating around three times the thrust of a single Falcon 9 rocket, allowing SpaceX to perform missions beyond low Earth orbit.
SpaceX also ultimately plans to be able to recover all three rocket cores that power the Falcon Heavy, just like it’s done over the last year with main rocket booster stage of its Falcon 9s. It’s unclear if the company will attempt to recover the boosters of this maiden rocket.
Of course, Musk also said earlier this fall at the International Astronautical Congress that he plans to pour all of SpaceX’s resources into an even bigger rocket architecture, known as the Interplanetary Transport System (or Big Fucking Rocket, for short).
That new mega-rocket, when built, would essentially obsolesce the Falcon Heavy and the Falcon 9. It will be capable of taking on the same duties that those rockets perform, while adding new capabilities that range from planting a colony on Mars to making 30-minute transcontinental travel possible on Earth.
In that light, maybe shooting a Tesla into orbit around the Red Planet doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Additional reporting by Loren Grush.
Update December 2nd, 8:0PM ET: This story has been updated to include back and forth between The Verge and Musk.