Thanks, Elon. Humanity Just Sneezed Into the Solar System

“I, for one, welcome our new snotty overlords.”

“Germs? What germs? I just got this Tesla waxed.” (SpaceX)

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably know my (conflicted) feelings about Elon Musk blasting his cherry red Tesla roadster into space. But there’s one angle of the whole “I’m a billionaire and it’s my rocket company, I can do what the hell I like” saga I hadn’t considered: That same red roadster was carrying a potential biological weapon into space.

Conversely, it might be the biological equivalent of Noah’s Ark.

As the vehicle wasn’t designed (or, indeed, intended) for a planetary encounter (whether that be Mars, Earth or some random asteroid), NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection had no jurisdiction over the test launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 6. The Tesla roadster acted as the test mass for the launch, outfitted with a space-suited mannequin (or not) — a.k.a. “Starman” — with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing on the radio and a “Don’t Panic” homage to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” showing on the car’s display. There was a lot going on with that controversial launch, but no one can dispute that it wasn’t a marketing masterstroke.

As a bonus, I even saw the Falcon upper stage carry out its third burn that evening over Los Angeles during my night run, hours after the Florida launch:

Yeah, it was a memorable day.

So, back to planetary protection. Or, more precisely, lack thereof.

“Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty,” said Jay Melosh, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue University, in a statement on Tuesday. “Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.”

Also, this wan’t a new car. And no number of details would have removed terrestrial bacteria from the wheels, engine, upholstery and uncountable nooks and crannies bacteria have set up home. And if it’s been driven on Los Angeles roads… well, yuck. Put simply, this car wasn’t subject to the rigorous sterilization procedures spacecraft are subject to.

Space roadster proponents will probably argue that this car isn’t intended to launch a germy invasion party to any planetary body; it was blasted into open space and not likely to hit anything solid for millions of years. It’s just going to be an artificial satellite of the Sun, nothing more.


Bacteria are hardy little buggers and even the frozen radioactive vacuum of space wont be enough to eradicate every microbe from inside that vehicle. Many strains of microbe will simply shut down and hibernate for extreme periods of time until they get heated back up and watered. And, as far as I’m aware, there was no attempt by SpaceX at protecting the extraterrestrial neighborhood from humanity’s germs (besides, why would they?), so there is likely a menagerie of microbial biomass hitching a ride.

Some scientists, being optimistic beings, view this differently, however. Far from being a germ-bomb waiting to smear its humanity’s snot over the pristine slopes of Olympus Mons, the Tesla might actually be a clever way of backing up Earth’s genetic information for the eons to come, regardless of what happens to life on Earth.

“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth,” said Alina Alexeenko, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, who specializes in freeze-drying bacteria.

There’s a larger question here, beyond the hype and the probability that the roadster will be a harmless addition to the Sun’s asteroid family; as commercial spaceflight is obviously in its infancy, who’s job is it to ensure payloads are clean? Is it even a priority? Sure, this SpaceX launch won’t likely hit Mars or even Earth, but what about future “test” launches?

How much dirty space junk is too much?

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch Stalled Until Fall

The Falcon 9 after it was hoisted vertical at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)

In some ways, this was inevitable, but in others, it’s just plain frustrating.

In January, the powerful Falcon 9 launch vehicle was hoisted vertically at the new SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral. However, that was only temporary. As the first test launch wasn’t expected until late summer, SpaceX was deep in technical work and systems testing.

Now, due to a combination of delayed paperwork and overruns, SpaceX is now looking at a fall launch, several months later than hoped.

It’s basically dealing with the complexities associated with lifting a new rocket off from a new launch site,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

According to Shotwell, the huge quantities of safety documentation required by space operations veteran Brig. Gen. Edward Bolton of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, are unfinished. “There is a huge amount of documentation that gets passed to the range and lots of meetings, and that process just takes a long time,” she added.

Although the rocket remained vertical at the Cape for several days at the start of 2009, SpaceX has since been working on the nine Merlin 1C engines that will need to be integrated into the waiting first stage at Launch Complex 40.

Launching rockets is no easy task, as not only do you need to worry about making the launch a success you have to satisfy a lot of red tape, proving the safety of the vehicle. But this will still be a huge disappointment for SpaceX as the longer the Falcon 9 is grounded, the longer Elon Musk’s company will have to wait for payday.

We don’t get paid to sit on the ground.” –Shotwell

Fortunately, SpaceX doesn’t give exact launch times until a day or so in advance of lift-off, so hopefully there will be minimal disruption to the projected dates of commercial launches.

Here’s to hoping for a late-2009 launch!

Source: The Flame Trench

Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?

The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)
The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)

Over the weekend, I discussed the pros and cons of a recent article written by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. In his discussion for a Washington D.C. political website, he outlined his thoughts on how to enrich the US economy. One of the points raised was the argument that a manned mission to Mars would have a huge economic impact on the USA; creating jobs, invigorating science education and boosting national well being. This is a worthy argument that, in principal, holds a lot of merit. After all, the Apollo Program in the 1960’s had a lasting effect on the US, creating jobs in the aerospace industry, bolstering the economy and creating a generation of highly skilled scientists and engineers.

So why not do Apollo 2.0? Send man to Mars as a measure to recreate the economic benefits generated by the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, no modern government would sensibly invest in such a plan. There is no political incentive to do so (well, no acute incentive that requires the US to “beat” a competing superpower in the race to strategically dominate space).

But what if the recent economic $800+ billion stimulus package could be used to stimulate another, burgeoning sector of space flight, that has both political and financial merit?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is asking the same question. Could NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts get a boost in funding, accelerating a commercial answer to the looming 5-year gap in US manned spaceflight? This is where SpaceX needs your help…
Continue reading “Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?”

Falcon 1 Launch Success! SpaceX Makes History (Video)

The second stage of Falcon 1, functioning perfectly with the curvature of the Earth below (SpaceX)
The second stage of Falcon 1, functioning perfectly with the curvature of the Earth below (SpaceX)

Today marks the day when the first ever commercial space vehicle was launched into orbit. SpaceX will be relieved that Flight 4 of the Falcon 1 rocket was successful; the previous three had failed. Flight 3, last month, was carrying a commercial payload when an anomaly with the first stage separation brought disaster to the mission. So, the pressure was on the Californian company and its founder Elon Musk, should this flight have failed it might have been the last…
Continue reading “Falcon 1 Launch Success! SpaceX Makes History (Video)”

Static Fire a Success for SpaceX Ahead of Flight 4

So far, so good. A static fire test for the upcoming Flight 4 is a success for SpaceX and Falcon 1 (SpaceX)
So far, so good. A static fire test for the upcoming Flight 4 is a success for SpaceX and Falcon 1 (SpaceX)

The run-up to Flight 4 of SpaceX Falcon 1 appears to proceeding nicely. Scheduled for a late-September launch, the rocket has been rolled out onto its South Pacific launch pad and prepared for launch. Today saw the successful static fire test of the Merlin 1C engines (pictured above), and according to the SpaceX press release, “no major issues came up.” However, after detailed analysis of test data, engineers decided to replace the second stage engine LOX supply line as a precaution. Apparently, Falcon 1 should operate fine without the replacement, but SpaceX will be extra cautious ahead of launch some time over the next couple of days.

For now, the exact launch time is being kept secret, and in light of last month’s Flight 3 failure, Flight 4 will be critical to the future of the private space company. Our hopes are high for the first successful commercial launch very soon…