- SpaceX on Tuesday launched its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time.
- The test payload was Musk’s own Tesla Roadster, fitted with cameras and a dummy wearing a SpaceX space suit.
- But a former NASA official says a SpaceX vice president told her the company offered NASA and the Air Force a chance to put a payload on the rocket at no cost before deciding to launch the car.
The payload on top was a red Tesla Roadster owned by the company’s founder, Elon Musk. His electric car (and some cleverly placed trinkets) is now in space, helmed by a spacesuit-clad dummy named Starman in the driver’s seat.
The launch was far from universally appreciated, though.
Some people called the use of the Roadster as the payload, which Musk had previously said would be “the silliest thing we can imagine,” a wasted opportunity to send something scientific, educational, or otherwise practical into space. (On test launches, however, aerospace companies traditionally fly concrete blocks, since the rockets might explode.)
Others bemoaned the choice during a time of increasing economic disparity.
However, according to Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator, the company offered the US government a chance to fly whatever payload it wanted – free of charge – before deciding on Musk’s car.
“I was told by a SpaceX VP at the launch that they offered free launches to NASA, Air Force etc. but got no takers. A student developed experiment or early tech demo could have led to even more new knowledge from the mission,” Garver tweeted on Thursday. “The Tesla gimmick was the backup.”
SpaceX and NASA didn’t immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for more details about the offer and why it was declined.
Why SpaceX’s golden ticket was turned down
SpaceX says Falcon Heavy can “lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb) – a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel.” But there may be a few reasons government officials essentially turned down a $90 million ticket to space aboard the rocket.
First, NASA, the Air Force, and other government agencies have very low thresholds for risk, since they don’t want a fiery explosion to cause them to lose potentially billions of dollars in taxpayer investments. And an explosion is precisely what Musk was forecasting for the better part of a year leading up to Tuesday’s launch.
“I’ll consider it a win if it clears the pad and doesn’t blow the pad to smithereens,” Musk told Business Insider on Monday during a press briefing.
Garver later suggested that the offer may have come too late or too casually to be taken seriously by NASA, USAF, and other divisions SpaceX may have contacted. It can take several years and millions of dollars to build and test even a small satellite that can function in the harsh environment of space.
“I have no idea when Elon decided on the car & the opportunity offered to the govt could have been for smaller payloads, low cost v. free etc.,” Garver tweeted. “I’m sure [SpaceX] would call the car idea brilliant & provocative.”
“If only informal inquiries were made & there was no serious interest, that is understandable,” she said, adding that this is especially true for a first-time vehicle, and with a late inquiry.
“Tesla had to have been planned for awhile,” Garver said.
A US Air Force Space Command representative said that if an offer had been made, it was most likely not a formal one and therefore not a matter of record.
“There were no official offers to launch a payload on the Falcon Heavy for free made to the Air Force,” she told Business Insider in an email.