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The first launch of the new Falcon Heavy will be sending up a Tesla Roadster owned by Elon Musk as its payload instead of something more useful.

Why spend all that money and effort sending up a car? Why not send up a new segment to the space station or some equipment that is not critical but useful?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Feb 5 '18 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ More than 5 decades ago, water ballast was sucessfully used for two tests of the Saturn I rocket, see SA-2 and SA-3. The liquid water ballast was used for project highwater to produce ice clouds in the ionosphere. The addition of extra baffles in the propellant tanks prevented fuel sloshing. In the same way water sloshing could be prevented too. Releasing water ballast in space produces no debris, the ice would sublimate into water vapor soon. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Feb 5 '18 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps because that "useful thing" to be useful would have to be engineered, built, and tested at non-trivial expense, adding to the loss if the flight does not go well. The point of the launch is to test the launch vehicle to establish its fitness for use, not put it to use untested. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Feb 6 '18 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ Possible payload: low value but high mass raw materials for something that will be assembled in orbit. This means the Falcon Heavy doesn't have to go near any existing valuable thing (like the ISS), and future valuable stuff can be launched (on better-tested rockets) to match the existing orbit where the raw materials are. Fuel would be the obvious choice, except that @Stian points out that an explosive payload is a Bad Thing. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Feb 6 '18 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ The real reason is that they are secretly producing a colossal, multi-billion movie about mars exploration where the hero stranded on the red planet saves the day by driving a tesla car found by chance somehow hidden in a sandy crater :-D $\endgroup$ – Lorenzo Donati supports Monica Feb 9 '18 at 18:58
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The very first start of a new rocket is a risky endeavour. Since the system is put to test for the very first time as a whole, all kind of things can go wrong and chances are that the rocket doesn't make it into orbit. So a cheap, unimportant payload is needed for the first launch. You don't want to see something worth billions of dollars and having cost years of development to blow up. Instead of launching a boring piece of concrete or some other weight, SpaceX decided to make a fun publicity stunt by lifting Elon's Tesla Roadster instead.

It's not the first "silly" payload SpaceX has sent into space, either: their first Dragon test flight transported a barrel of cheese, as a reference to a Monty Python sketch.

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    $\begingroup$ Loren Pechtel : If the rocket is not certified to get close to the ISS, how should the fuel for reboosting transfered to the ISS? $\endgroup$ – Uwe Feb 4 '18 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ Besides, they absolutely will not carry explosives like fuel - which would further threaten the launch pad in case failure before liftoff. The launch pad is the only thing that really needs to survive - or else the schedule for crew missions in 2019 is in dire jeopardy. $\endgroup$ – Stian Yttervik Feb 5 '18 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Loren How exactly would fuel for the ISS be helpful if it's in a Mars orbit? $\endgroup$ – John Feb 5 '18 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel If you think it's crazy to throw away that much lift capacity, wait till you hear about Apollo 4 through Apollo 6. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Feb 5 '18 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel The whole point of the test flight is to see if the rocket works. If the rocket doesn't work, the point where they find that out may well involve explosions or uncontrolled trajectories. These are not things you want anywhere near the ISS, or your very expensive satellite, or anything at all that isn't totally expendable. Even if they lift "low-value stuff for the ISS", the ISS itself is not low value (and neither are the crew on board it), so it cannot be risked by allowing an unproven rocket to go anywhere near it. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Feb 5 '18 at 21:42
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Why not deliver something useful to the space station like a new living segment?

Many, many reasons.

  • A dummy payload is almost always used on the maiden flight of a new rocket. The risk of failure is too high to send anything of value as a payload.
  • SpaceX cannot send something to the ISS just because they want to do so. They can only deliver cargo to the ISS that NASA wants delivered and has contracted with SpaceX to do so.
  • None of the five space agencies that collectively own the ISS has a new segment ready to be delivered to the ISS.
  • Even if one of them did, they most certainly would not want to have it launched on the maiden flight of a new rocket.
  • The Falcon Heavy is not certified to go to the ISS. The delivery would have to be via the SpaceX Dragon.
  • The SpaceX Dragon doesn't have the carrying capacity (mass or volume) to bring a new segment to the ISS.
  • SpaceX would not want to risk launching a Dragon on the maiden flight of their new launch vehicle. If the launch fails, the loss would be completely on them, or on their insurance company if they managed to insure it.
  • No sane insurance company will accept the risk of launching something valuable on the maiden flight of a new rocket.

Even if those space agencies had asked SpaceX to use this flight to send something to the ISS, and even if SpaceX was willing to sacrifice one of their Dragon spacecraft, doing so wouldn't make sense. It would not showcase the prime purpose of the Falcon Heavy, which is to push payloads well beyond low Earth orbit.

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    $\begingroup$ But apart from that...... $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Feb 5 '18 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ And now we have another reason: "Don't Panic!" and some Bowie music wouldn't have been nearly as good a sendoff to a hunk of concrete as it was for the Roadster and the astronaut suit in the driver's seat. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Feb 6 '18 at 21:39
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    $\begingroup$ @DrMcCleod "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health... what have the Romans ever done for us?!". :-D $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Feb 7 '18 at 12:34
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When SpaceX launched the Falcon 1, it took them 4 times to successfully orbit the Earth. The most similar rocket to Falcon Heavy, in terms of the number of engines, the N1, made 4 attempts to reach orbit, all of which failed. The more engines, the more complex things are. The chance of a failure is extremely high on this launch. No one would be willing to put a valuable satellite in to the maiden flight of this vehicle.

The Falcon 9 initial test was a Dragon qualification test. This actually made some sense, as the Falcon 9 was required to lift the capsule, and testing both at once was minimally risky. But there is no similar payload at this time. The risk for this particular configuration is very high, only the Delta Heavy has a similar configuration of any current rocket system.

Bottom line, a payload was needed that wasn't that expensive, but could show off the capabilities of the rocket. This test fit the bill perfectly. By trying to launch to escape Earth, it can show the full power, and if it fails somewhat, then it will still be successful. And the mass is considerable as well. A useful payload would cost more then the rocket most likely, and just isn't really worth it to SpaceX.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are we comparing the Falcon 9 to the N1 because it has more than 5 engines on the first stage? I could understand comparing the FH to the first stage of the N1 $\endgroup$ – CBredlow Feb 5 '18 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ The numbers further underscore the point about risk. Falcon 1 had one Kestrel engine which had to work. Falcon 9 has 9 Merlin engines which have to work. Falcon Heavy has 27 Merlin engines (3 Falcon 9s) which have to work. While the Merlin is now a very well tested engine, firing 27 of them together is not. The last time such complexity was tried as the Soviet N1 with 30 engines in the 1970s, a spectacular failure. Much has changed, but it's still risky. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 5 '18 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern Must all 27 engines function 100%? Iirc one of the falcon 9 engines failed on the first successful flight but the mission still was a conditional success. $\endgroup$ – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 5 '18 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Schwern, Falcon 1 had one Merlin engine on its first stage, the Kestrel engine was on the second. The Falcon 9 has demonstrated the ability to make orbit after engine failure. The same is likely true of the Falcon Heavy, especially since it can gain significant margin by aborting the landing attempt. $\endgroup$ – Lex Feb 5 '18 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ @JCRM You're right that it's just the number of engines. The N1 project was a mess in all the ways that the Falcon Heavy is not, and they tried to do it using 70s technology not 21st century tech. Even so, I can't recall any successful rocket which has to coordinate so many engines. That's enough reason to be conservative until it's proven itself. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 6 '18 at 1:10
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Given the points made in the other answers (that any payload on the first launch is at high risk of loss), it seems to me there's still something useful you could do lift on a test-launch like this:

Low value but high mass raw materials for something that will be assembled in orbit. Or water. Water is heavy but useful (as radiation shielding, and for humans to consume), and very cheap. By the time you build a robust container for it that won't slosh around and unbalance the Falcon Heavy, it's still pretty darn cheap.

This means the Falcon Heavy doesn't have to go near any existing valuable thing (like the ISS or any satellite) with the Falcon Heavy itself, or risk a Dragon orbiter for the rendezvous. Future valuable stuff can be launched (on better-tested rockets) to match the existing orbit where the raw materials are.

Fuel (e.g. for a Mars mission) would be the obvious choice, except that @StianYttervik points out that an explosive payload is a Bad Thing, making failure on the launchpad even more dangerous.


Presumably SpaceX thought of these possibilities, and still decided to do a publicity-stunt launch instead. They're a commercial company, and the value (to them in an economic sense) of this publicity stunt is well above zero.

Presumably it exceeds whatever they thought they could get from launching low-value raw materials. Or maybe nobody was interested in paying to have raw materials launched as the start of an orbital-construction project any time soon!

As others have commented, proving they can get a payload onto a Mars trajectory is pretty cool.

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    $\begingroup$ The primary use case for the falcon heavy is not in LEO. It can't currently achieve its max theoretical LEO payload weight because the upperstage is not structurally able to take that much weight. This doesn't matter, because its main purpose is GTO and direct GEO government launches. Specifically, direct GEO requires relighting of the upperstage after several hours in space and after passing through the Van Allen belt. This is a capability that SpaceX has yet to demonstrate, but will be demonstrated with the launch to Mars. $\endgroup$ – Lex Feb 6 '18 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ Why would you want to launch a bunch of water into orbit around the sun? This payload isn't going into orbit around Mars. $\endgroup$ – Ellesedil Feb 7 '18 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Ellesedil: I was thinking that a big rocket like the Falcon Heavy could lift water to LEO instead of a lighter payload to an escape trajectory. But that's not exactly how it works; Lex's comment corrected me on that, but I haven't figured out how to fix my answer without taking the time to mostly rewrite it. Edits welcome. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Feb 7 '18 at 0:18
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There was something useful... A commercial in the superbowl cost 5 million for 30 seconds! How much advertisement has Elon Musk just gotten for the Tesla Roadster brand?

$250,000 for days and hours of video, news article, and picture time is an insanely good return on investment as far as advertising is concerned!

Plus the Tesla Roadster is now the fastest car ever!

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The payload is immensely useful.

As noted by others, a traditionally "useful" payload costs a very large amount to provide, the risk is high, and the ISS is not an available option at this stage.

Instead, SpaceX, Tesla and Elon are achieving a win-win-win solution.

A, or indeed arguably THE, target of Elon's efforts is to establish a Mars colony. If successful the car will be placed into a Mars (near) intercept orbit. It's lifetime is likely to be "indefinite". The car will (they hope) serve as an ongoing billboard advertising SpaceX's aims, Elon's involvement and the Tesla product. 100 or even 1000 years from now, and long after ISS's brief lifetime, barring various unhoped for eventualities, the car will still be there advertising the prowess of SpaceX, Tesla & Elon. Far better than a lump of concrete or a cloud of ice crystals.


Mars related:

While a Mars injection orbit was planned the launch has produced an orbit with apogee beyond Mars orbit - expected to be somewhere near the asteroid belt.

Guardian: SpaceX oddity: how Elon Musk sent a car towards Mars

Syfy: NEXT STOP, THE ORBIT OF MARS: THE FALCON HEAVY IS SET TO FLY TODAY

Popular Mechanics

  • Musk's vehicle won’t be going to Mars, or even orbit around Mars. In fact, it could be several million miles away from the Red Planet. Rather, this launch would put the car into the kind of orbital loop that brings it close to Mars and Earth over and over again.

    The Falcon Heavy launch would place the Roadster into a heliocentric orbit, meaning that like the planets and comets and so on, it will be orbiting the sun. More specifically, the Muskmobile will go into a type of heliocentric orbit called Trans-Mars injection, which it is the easiest and least energy-intensive way to move objects back and forth between Earth and Mars.

    At specific moments every two years, the conditions are right to fire up the spacecraft’s engines and slide from one orbit to the other. A future transportation network that supplies a Martian colony would benefit from this kind of scheduling. Think of Musk's car like a city bus on a scheduled run through the solar system, slung this way and that to take advantage of the gravitational pull of the sun to make it easier to get into Earth or Martian orbits.

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    $\begingroup$ The cloud of ice crystals would last a very short time. The ice would sublimate to water vapor. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Feb 6 '18 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe Yes, indeed. "Car better than a lump of concrete or a cloud of ice crystals." :-) $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Feb 7 '18 at 12:24
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They're testing if they can use Falcon Heavy to send stuff into a heliocentric orbit, not an earth orbit. So anything going up will be out of our reach for a long time.

The only thing that can be useful in those circumstances would have been some autonomous space craft. And those are too expensive given the odds of mission failure. So the next best thing is a big publicity stunt that will get space-flight back into peoples attention.

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  • $\begingroup$ Aren't they actually testing if they can use Falcon Heavy to send stuff into anything other than a fireball of destruction? $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Feb 6 '18 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Yup. The fireball of destruction thing is certainly the first thing they were testing. :-) $\endgroup$ – Mendelt Feb 7 '18 at 14:45
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This question is a specific situation that has been answered by the general question of What is simulated payload and why they are used

Short Answer: Satellites cost millions of dollars, especially on a launch with the risk involved with trying for a solar elliptical close to Mars, if not Mars orbit itself. A payload of water however, is cheap. And Elon Musk also owning Tesla, why not send something that in many ways will cement his legacy forever. Even a $75,000 car is significantly cheaper than a purposeful payload.

Also considering the actual happening of what happens when a launch doesn't go the way you want, Look at what happened just a month ago. SpaceX botched launching a classified satellite, code named Zuma, into orbit of our own planet. Who knows just how much that satellite cost, let alone the bad image it gives. Now, SpaceX is claiming their side was a success, and it was Northrop Grumman that botched the job.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your comments on the cause of the Zuma "incident" are at variance with the generally understood ones. If you were worth suing and Tesla cared about your opinion then you might regret stating your speculation in such a categorical manner. $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Feb 7 '18 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ These comments are referenced from several news sources stating SpaceX's stance on the Zuma launch. One of which was hyperlinked in my answer. If anyone wanted to sue concerning these comments, I am sure that I am far back in a very, very long line. $\endgroup$ – as.beaulieu Feb 7 '18 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed :-) - I had little doubt that, from SpaceX's point of view, you would fail my first hurdle of "if you worth suing" :-) || I agree with the 2 main relevant statements in the page you cite - and they are NOT mutually exclusive. They say: "The classified intelligence satellite, built by Northrop Grumman, failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket ..." & "SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson said: ... ... reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.” -> AND $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Feb 8 '18 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ ...In most satellite launches the trans-stage/satellite mount is provided by the launcher manufacturer. A failure to separate is thus usually the "fault" of the launcher provider. In this case. very unusually, the interface was provided by "the client". SpaceX's contracted task was (AFAIU) to place the satellite PLUS 'mount' at a location / velocity / time such that the client's satellite could be separated from the clients mount. SpaceX are saying that they did this and fulfilled their contracted requirements. Whether the client accepts this is outside my area of influence :-) $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Feb 8 '18 at 2:00

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