Elon Musk’s Tesla Boldly Goes Where No Tesla Has Gone Before

Even among eccentric tech executives, Tesla CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk stands out. On Tuesday, while Waymo and Uber spent another day squabbling over alleged theft of trade secrets, Musk took the high road — 400 million miles high, eventually.

A test launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket designed and built by SpaceX, Musk’s aerospace startup, carried the Tesla founder’s personal Tesla Roadster out beyond the bonds of Earth to eventually orbit around the sun.

The sports car in Midnight Cherry, an example of the electric car maker’s first model, made from 2008 to 2012, isn’t quite driverless: It’s carrying a space-suited dummy named Starman, in a pleasure-driving pose with one arm resting on top of the convertible’s door. (The space suit is SpaceX’s own design.) But if the journey goes as planned, the car will find its way around the sun and past Earth and Mars, as long as the hardware and the laws of physics last.

Its estimated range of 200 miles on a charge only applies on Earth.

On board the car is also a toy Roadster with its own tiny astronaut, as well as an optical storage device containing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy of sci-fi novels and a plaque with the names of more than 6,000 SpaceX employees, SpaceX said during a YouTube livestream of the launch.

SpaceX is streaming live views of the Roadster online.

The Roadster isn’t the first electric car to leave Earth, as Space.com points out. The three lunar rovers used on NASA’s Apollo missions got there first.

The main purpose of the February 6 test launch is to find out how the Falcon Heavy performs. Every rocket needs a payload for realistic testing, and usually it’s just a block of cement or some other weighty object that can be placed where the crew or cargo would go. Musk, who no doubt is getting ready to replace his Roadster with one from the new batch due in 2020 anyway, is just using a payload with a bit more flair.

The car’s svelte 2,700-pound curb weight doesn’t even begin to simulate all that the Falcon Heavy can carry. It’s powerful enough to lift nearly 64 metric tons, or the weight of a fully loaded Boeing 737, into orbit, according to SpaceX. Only the Saturn V, used for the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s, has had a greater carrying capacity.

SpaceX calls the Falcon Heavy the most powerful operational rocket in the world, with more than 5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, equal to the power of 18 Boeing 747s. Its three rocket cores contain 27 engines.

The Falcon Heavy took off from Launch Complex 39A NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Fla., the same launchpad the Saturn V used. But unlike the classic NASA rocket, the Falcon Heavy sent at least two of its giant lower stages back to Earth. Those two stages had come back from earlier SpaceX launches and returned together to their designated landing pads to be reused again.

Another stage of the rocket was designed to land on an autonomous barge off the Florida coast. It wasn’t clear late Monday whether that maneuver had worked.

SpaceX built the Falcon Heavy so it could launch bigger satellites and future manned spacecraft. It has already launched multiple supply missions to the International Space Station. Musk’s goal is to eventually mount a mission to Mars.

The roadster’s trip, which will take it as far as 400 million kilometers away from Earth at speeds up to 40,000km per hour, may last a billion years, SpaceX says. By then, everyone who pre-ordered a Tesla Model 3 may actually have their cars.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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