Yet the true hubris of the car-launching stunt lies in how little respect it shows for real science and science education. Sending something into orbit is a phenomenally expensive ordeal; even sending equipment to low-Earth orbit — barely above the planetary atmosphere — hovers between $9,000 per pound and $43,000 per pound, according to one estimate. Sending cargo further out — say, scientific instruments — is far more expensive; as such, the cost of sending a satellite of comparable weight into the orbit Musk’s Tesla now occupies would be in the eight- to nine-figure range. Many astronomers spend years submitting proposals to get their 10-pound instrument attached to a probe, and often get denied again and again.
Scudder was particularly concerned with contingencies. The launch was successful and Musk’s Tesla satellite is now in an orbit that’s unlikely to crash it into Mars, but there were no guarantees of that in advance. If something had gone wrong with the launch, the car could easily have contaminated a body in the solar system with pesky Earth microbes, a result that would have infuriated actual scientists. In the battle between billionaire hubris and international scientific protocol, the former seems to have won out.
I agree. Musk sending a Tesla into space is an exercise in frivolity. Just as Dwight Eisenhower once suggested we view military spending as a theft from the poor, I see random, self-promotional space junk as a theft from humanity. Compared to the important scientific tasks space travel has enabled, from planet-detection to gravity-wave observation to infrared telescopes, the $100,000 luxury car floating in the void is nothing more than a wasteful monument to billionaire stupidity. Or perhaps it’s a harbinger of a new era, in which space is now normalized as a rich man’s playground rather than a scientific commons. In other words, it’s not even a small step for man — it’s just a huge leap for Musk’s already vast ego.