Feeling a bit ‘universal’ recently? It’s possible you’re one of the many millions of people who watched tech giant Elon Musk send his cherry red Tesla Roadster into the blackness of space, for what may seem like no reason at all.

But there was reason. This was the maiden flight of what is now the world’s most powerful operational rocket, the Falcon Heavy, carved and molded from its predecessor, the Falcon 9, but essentially a new design. ‘Strap three of those together. How hard could it be?’ I imagine the billionaire Musk strolling in, calling to a lone, panicked engineer. Well, after years of delays, it turned out to be very hard indeed.

It’s a technical marvel and one to be celebrated: the first reusable heavy lift rocket to be a success on its first time out of the gate. And my goodness. The rocket boosters land themselves in beautiful synchronicity. Not only did I never believe that I would see that, but I never realised how it would make me feel, a wonderful combination of absurd disbelief and hope. Deep space will now be accessible to so many more potentially world-changing things because this rocket exists and the unimaginable benefits of that will only be felt right here on Planet Earth.

Whether you agree with it, the image of the Tesla, holding a dummy passenger named Starman and blasting through space to the tune of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, will likely become iconic. A test flight must recreate the future purpose of whatever craft is being tested. Usually, a concrete block would sit atop a rocket on its first flight.

But we can’t relate to a concrete block. As a people, we get a car. The world has latched on to this in a big way, with one journalist comparing it to the burning of money in front of the poor – presumably demanding all those with similar bank balances solve Earth’s ground-based socio-economic problems before daring to set foot off it. But in the end, the car means nothing. Its technical purpose was nothing but ballast. Because it was a vacuum of purpose, we have filled it with our own interpretations and assigned meaning, both positive and negative.

Musk’s act of placing his car and playing his favourite song in deep space for the next million years is absolutely his choice. “It’s absurd to see […] It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that silly and fun things are important,” Musk commented at the post-flight press conference. This is so often forgotten in serious endeavours. The successful test was a lovely, brief respite from world affairs. Yes, many can cry PR stunt or mid-life crisis, as a billionaire sends his $100,000 sports car to space on top of a fiery phallus, but what I see, and what everyone on some level can relate to, is a nerd. Musk is a nerd, passionate about getting our species to move beyond our cosmological cradle and take more and more steps to explore our galactic neighbourhood. We’re all nerds about something.

The beautiful image of Starman floating in front of our planet is absurd. But as anyone with a fine art degree will tell you, we need something absurd and difficult to challenge us and make us think about difficult concepts. We’re not thinking about the car. We are reluctantly looking at ourselves and seeing our place in space. We know that we must take care of our planet. Of the millions who have seen this, some, but sadly not all, will see that Earth is our shared and quite spacious sports car. We’re all tearing through the void together, so why not turn up the David Bowie and enjoy it while we can?


Nigel K McEnaney