COCOA BEACH, Fla. — Before founding SpaceX in 2002, Elon Musk had a wild plan to fly a plant to Mars. The idea was to show life on the desolate planet, a brushstroke of vibrant green on a lifeless red canvas.
If nothing else, it would inspire people, he figured, reignite interest in space, while also furthering his ambitions to push deeper into the cosmos. At the time, he had yet to build his first rocket.
On Tuesday, Musk launched his biggest one yet from the same launchpad that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969, a rocket capable of boosting a payload to Mars and that is currently the most powerful in the world. With the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy, Musk achieved an extraordinary engineering feat, pulling off the launch of a 27-engine beast that sent a Tesla Roadster deep into space.
But beyond the mechanical architecture of the launch, and its high degree of difficulty, the launch provided the artful inspiration Musk has pursued for years. After the burst of flame and smoke from the pad, two of the three boosters returned to Earth, landing side-by-side on a pair of pads along the coastline, touching down in unison, like a pair of synchronized swimmers.
Then came the crescendo. As the nose cone of the rocket opened, there was Musk’s Tesla convertible, with a mannequin named Starman sitting in the driver’s seat, spacesuit on, hand on the wheel, out for a cruise among the stars as if he were going for a spin up the Pacific Coast Highway.
SpaceX had outfitted the vehicle with three cameras that beamed back stunning images of the ruby red car soaring through the blackness of space with Earth, blue and green and beautiful, in the background.
Before the launch, some had derided the plan to launch a car into space as a waste, a cross-marketing ploy for Tesla, one of his other companies. And in his post-launch news conference, Musk said the test flight’s dummy payload was intended to excite and entertain, an abstract work of performance art.
“It’s kind of silly and fun,” he said. “But silly and fun things are important. Normally for a new rocket, they’d launch like a block of concrete or something. That’s so boring.”
By contrast, the scene of the Tesla in space “is something that’s going to get people excited around the world. It’s still tripping me out.”
The car was supposed to launch on a trajectory that would take it on an orbit around the sun that would reach as far out as Mars. But Musk said late on Tuesday that the final burn of the second-stage engine propelled the Roadster even farther, putting it on a course to go out into the asteroid belt.
As the imagery of Starman went viral, accolades started pouring in. President Trump tweeted his congratulations, saying, “This achievement, along with @NASA’s commercial and international partners, continues to show American ingenuity at its best!”
Vice President Pence, head of the reconstituted National Space Council, wrote on Twitter that the launch “demonstrates America’s unparalleled space leadership as the Trump Admin & the National Space Council seek to transform our space policy, seize 21st century opportunities & unleash the infinite potential of the cosmos for the America people.”
Even Musk’s rivals congratulated him. Dennis Muilenburg, chief executive of Boeing, which is in a race with SpaceX to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, tweeted: “Well done! @elonmusk @SpaceX”
Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon who owns a rocket company called Blue Origin, wrote: “Woohoo!” And added three rocket emoji. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amid the plaudits, Musk said he hoped his demonstration would encourage countries and other companies to raise their sights.
“We want a new space race. Races are exciting,” Musk said.
Having set a new standard, Musk was ebullient, if overwhelmed. “I’m still trying to absorb everything that happened because it seemed surreal to me,” he said at the news conference, as he marveled at the images of Starman cruising through the cosmos.
“I think it looks so ridiculous and impossible. You can tell it’s real because it looks so fake, honestly,” he said. “The colors look kind of weird in space. There’s no atmospheric occlusion. Everything looks too crisp. … It’s just literally a normal car in space. I just kind of like the absurdity of that.”