Few people remember the fourth time anything is done, but when you’re talking about launching cars into space, each one is a pretty momentous event. On Tuesday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s personal 2010 Tesla Roadster successfully rode a spume of fire into the heavens aboard the company’s prototype Falcon 9 Heavy launch vehicle, massively adding miles to its odometer and joining the three NASA Lunar Roving Vehicles launched in the 1970s during the latter stages of the Apollo program as the only human-driven automobiles ever sent into space.
While the choice of a used sports car as rocket payload seems oddly frivolous, the Falcon 9 Heavy’s inaugural flight was only a test, and the car was simply a stand-in for concrete or some other dummy payload that would otherwise have been used. The FAA, which reviews and approves all such launches, thought the idea was strange, too, and required Tesla to strip out the battery pack, motor, and other hazardous materials in case the rocket went kablooey on liftoff.
The engineers also removed the car’s glass and anything else fragile, lest the violent shaking during ascent break off bits that could interfere with the rocket’s performance. However, they did insert a suited spaceman in the driver’s seat and installed in the glovebox a copy of the cult sci-fi book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a rompy space farce written by the late Douglas Adams and punctuated with the slogan, “Don’t Panic.”
The car overshot its projected path near Mars and is instead on a trajectory to orbit in the asteroid belt for the next billion-or-so years where it will be found, Musk hopes, at some point in the way distant future by some very confused aliens.