Now that the dust has cleared on launch pad 39A, let’s consider the accomplishment, a magnificent blend of science and spectacle.
Like most of you, I whooped and hollered when the engines fired and the rocket slowly propelled itself away from Earth. I joy-danced with my husband as we watched the twin boosters’ synchronized landing. I marveled at live-from-space views of the red Tesla roadster with the space-suited “Starman” fused into the driver’s seat — and there’s the issue.
The driver — and many other features included in the car — show us once more that deep space exploration is still a boys’ club: music by David Bowie, dashboard quote by Douglas Adams, plus a tiny disc containing Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and a miniature “Starman” effigy and Hotwheels Tesla.
It’s not only what’s in the Tesla that matters, but also what was left out. There was no room for a “Starwoman” (nor a smaller suit to fit her), or for references to real women like writer Ursula LeGuin or scientists like Vera Rubin, Katherine Johnson or any other woman whose space-themed accomplishments have inspired us. Surely some names on the list of 6000 Space X employees also packed into the Tesla were women’s, although one journalist noted that the cheering launch-day crowd at SpaceX headquarters featured so few women, we could play a challenging “Where’s Waldo” type game trying to spot any female, anywhere.
Compare the Tesla payload to the carefully crafted “Golden Record” launched with Voyager in 1977, which included music, images, and greetings from all parts of the Earth, recorded by a wide swatch of humanity — admirably inclusive for its time. This effort, led by Carl Sagan, imagined a future alien encounter, and how our planet might best communicate its identity to an extraterrestrial audience. The Golden Record projected outward its vision of Earth and its inhabitants, while the Tesla and its Starman reflect backward to the source: the cool dude on Earth, inspired by other cool dudes, who made this happen.
Voyager, 40 years into its mission, is still out there, its expansive message still intact. By now it has left our solar system and is now sailing through interstellar space, truly going places no spacecraft has gone before. Meanwhile the Tesla, now cruising toward the sun, repeats “man in space” stories we’ve all heard before — in books and movies, in public and private space agencies that still prize, elevate and present the male experience as if it’s the sum-total human experience.
Yes, the message etched onto the circuit board says “Made on Earth by humans,” but when such an incredible feat of science, engineering, and entrepreneurship succeeds, we all want to feel the connection. We want to share the pride of accomplishment. As we cheer, we want to see ourselves as a part of the effort. We would all like to imagine that if the visor of the spacesuit were lifted, we’d see ourselves driving a red roadster toward the sun.
One writer describes Voyager’s Golden Record as old-fashioned and outdated, a “romantic momento.” The Tesla and its contents are modern, whites Marina Koren in The Atlantic, offering “less sentimentality and a little more spice.”
“The business of spaceflight has become less universal, and more personal,” she says.
Yes, SpaceX is a private company and its owner can do whatever he wants because he’s paying for it. But for now, Musk and his SpaceX company represent all of us in deep space — there’s no one else out there. All the more reason to craft a payload that will represent humanity more completely and accurately to those curious extraterrestrials who may someday wonder if this is really what Earthlings are all about — and how to get to the nearest Tesla showroom.