On February 6, 2018, private US aerospace company SpaceX launched its biggest, most powerful rocket yet: the Falcon Heavy. As the name suggests, the spacecraft is huge. Powered by 27 Merlin engines, its three cores generated more than 5 million pounds of thrust, propelling the vehicle’s payload safely into space before two out of three of its cores landed safely back on Earth in an almost surreal synchronized descent sequence. The successful launch marks a milestone in human space exploration, drastically reducing the cost of putting cargo and crewed capsules into space for future missions.
The mastermind behind this insanity is Elon Musk, the South African-born billionaire who was named Silicon Valley’s most driven entrepreneur since Steve Jobs. His nerdy love for space – and his billions of dollars – have driven SpaceX to achieve the unachievable. But other than being rich and smart, Elon surely has got a sense of humor. This Tuesday’s launch was a test meant to evaluate the capabilities of the Falcon Heavy rocket and collect crucial flight data that will serve to improve the launch vehicle for existing and future customers. Most test spacecrafts carry mass simulators, usually in the shape of concrete blocks, to mimic the load that the vehicles will experience in real-life missions. However, in Musk’s own words: “That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.” So he decided to send his own 2008 midnight cherry red Tesla Roadster to space instead.
At this point you might be asking yourself: why talk about space in a music blog? Well, stick around long enough and you’ll see where I’m going.
That being said, the Tesla car that is now on its way to the Asteroid belt is rife with nerdy easter eggs. Among them is a “Don’t Panic!” inscription printed on the vehicle’s center screen, referencing Musk’s childhood read: Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. But above all, the billionaire made sure to give credit to the one and only spaceman, the musical alien that inspired a whole generation of outcasts: David Bowie.
The late musician’s obsession with space has its roots in the late 1960’s, at the peak of the cold war-fueled space race between the US and the former Soviet Union. In 1967’s “Love You Till Tuesday”, Bowie alludes at his infatuation with space – and perhaps his struggle to fit into society – with the following lyrics: “Don’t be afraid of the man in the moon / Because it’s only me.” In the years following, he released a second self-titled LP containing what would later become one of his most famous tracks: “Space Oddity”. The entire song revolves around the adventures of Major Tom, a fictional character “Sitting in a tin can / Far above the world.” In an ode to its sweeping emotional power and evocative depiction of space, the red Tesla’s sound system will be playing the tune on repeat for millions of years while it gracefully orbits around the Sun. And that is only the first Bowie-related easter egg aboard the car.
By 1971, Neil Armstrong had already set foot on the moon, marking the beginning of the end of the space race. But Bowie still lingered in the cosmos, looking for answers in the endless celestial void. “Is there life on Mars?”, he asks in his homonymous song. Almost half a century later and we still can’t seem to be able to answer that question. Nonetheless, the riveting musical masterpiece turned out to be quite fitting for the computer-generated simulation video of the Falcon Heavy launch. In fact, Musk’s choice to feature the song in the video didn’t come by chance; after all, the Roadster was initially supposed to fly out and brush past the orbit of Mars. However, it overshot and is now headed much further out than expected.
Lastly, Musk’s tribute to David Bowie extends to the astronaut dummy sitting in the red Tesla. In 1972, Bowie released “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars”. The album was more than just an alternative viewpoint of the era’s rock & roll scene. It revealed a dramatic side to what until then was just an emerging music genre. By embracing his Ziggy Stardust alter ego, Bowie propelled musical storytelling to unseen artistic heights. Instead of regurgitating his music onto his audiences, he treated his album like a musical, with acts and main characters blended together through an unconditional love for all things sci-fi and space-related. Among so many beautiful pieces, one of the songs on the album stands out. In “Starman”, the late British musician describes his encounter with a rather peculiar character: “There’s a starman waiting in the sky / He’d like to come and meet us / But he thinks he’d blow our minds.” The Starman is out of our reach, but his message comes through nonetheless: “He told me: / Let the children lose it / Let the children use it / Let all the children boogie.” And it is in this joyful spirit that Elon Musk decided to name Falcon Heavy’s space dummy Starman, as an ultimate, extravagant tribute to David Bowie.
Now, a short recap: yes, there is a red convertible floating away from us towards the outer Solar System with a dummy called Starman sitting in its driver’s seat, blaring “Space Oddity” through the vehicle’s sound system. This is real and this is happening. But perhaps most importantly, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch – along with David Bowie’s timeless music – comes to tell us that even in these turbulent times, we are capable of great things. So let this moment serve as a reminder of some of our most cherished values: curiosity, ingenuity, grit, and unwavering passion.