Driving Space Travel Forward | Interested In Everything

I’ve just spent the last couple of weeks in the midst of a minor domestic crisis, thanks to my old central heating boiler giving up the ghost on possibly the coldest weekend of the year.  With all the upheaval this entails, I take my eye off the science news for a short while and what happens? Somebody sends a sports car into outer space!

Assuming that you’ve not been hiding away somewhere recently, you probably know that, on Tuesday last week, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket, currently the most powerful launch system on Earth, so you don’t really need me to tell you all about it.  Being something of a space travel geek (and just too young to have really appreciated Apollo properly first hand), I’m a little bit excited about this and it’s notable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the rocket’s boosters are reusable.  Until recently, rockets designed to do this kind of thing have essentially been seen as not much more than a consumable – massive tanks full of fuel and oxygen that burn until the fuel is exhausted and then themselves get destroyed as they fall back to Earth.  When you consider the enormous cost of building these things, that’s an awful lot of money to burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere.  This time, though, two of Falcon Heavy’s boosters landed successfully back on solid ground, ready to be used again.

Secondly, because of the reusable nature of said boosters, it’s brought the cost of launch down significantly, compared to previous missions.  If you’re not throwing your engines away, you can use them again.  The upshot of this is that Falcon Heavy will cost around $90 million per launch – still a lot of money compared to a lecturer’s salary, but something like a tenth of the amount it costs NASA to launch a similar payload.

Thirdly, they’ve sent a car into space!

When I first saw the pictures of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster floating around above the planet, I had to go and find out more and, after a bit of searching around the interwebs, I came away feeling slightly deflated.  Not because of the amazing engineering feat of getting a sports car out of the atmosphere, which I think is both fantastically wonderful and slightly barking at the same time, but because of some of the articles and comments that seem to have appeared claiming what a waste of time and effort it all was.  I’m not going to link to any of them, because I don’t want to send them any traffic from my blog, but if you have a quick search, you can probably find one or two.  I must say I was particularly disappointed with one mainstream newspaper (one that shall remain nameless, but used to be a leading liberal voice before editorial standards started to drop considerably) for churning out the usual “why are people engaging in this folly when there are people living in poverty” guff that gets thrown around at times like this.  The rest of this post is my response to the short sighted luddites.

SpaceX haven’t just blown $90 million on pointlessly putting a sports car into space on the whim of a megalomaniac.  They have spent that money on the test launch of a rocket that is capable of sending a hefty payload into Earth orbit and bringing its booster rockets back again successfully.  This has got to be the biggest launch since the Saturn V days (back when I was in primary school).  The thing has shown that it is capable of putting 64 tons up there at a fraction of the cost of any previous mission, which is absolutely fantastic news in terms of space exploration.

If you’ve designed something of this magnitude, you don’t risk sending up a payload such as a multi-million dollar communications satellite on the first go, it would be far too risky.  Instead you send up a dummy payload – I think it’s referred to as a “mass simulator” – to make sure it all goes to plan.  Normally, this would be some inert mass like a huge block of concrete, but Elon Musk stuck his old car in there instead.  Yes, it’s a bit mad, but it is far from pointless and, be honest, it’s got people interested in space flight again, which I can only applaud.  Those saying that it’s folly when there are people living in poverty?  Surely we can look at solving more than one problem at once, can’t we?  If we waited until we’d solved poverty and hunger before we made any technological advances, where would we be?  Never underestimate what space exploration will do (and, indeed, has done) for us – don’t get distracted by the dummy payload, but look instead at what’s been achieved here.  It’s truly spectacular.

Rant over.  Thank you.

Oh, and one other thing.  The Tesla Roadster is based around the design of the Lotus Elise.  The developers at Lotus drew on other areas of the UK car industry for some of their part designs – the door mirrors on the Series 1 Elise are, I believe, the same as used on the late model Austin Metro/Rover 100.  I like to think that there’s a little bit of British Leyland making its way through the solar system…



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