Former ISRO chairmen say SpaceX's launch of Falcon Heavy was more of a momentous breakthrough than publicity stunt

Rishiraj Bhagawati
The Tesla Roadster was never intended to land in Mars, which is why NASA's Office of Planetary Protection did not deem cleaning the spacecraft necessary.

Sailors fighting in the dance hall Oh man, look at those cavemen go It's the freakiest show Take a look at the lawman Beating up the wrong guy Oh man, wonder if he'll ever know He's in the best selling show Is there life on Mars?

David Bowie's words are currently blasting through the speakers of a red >Tesla Roadster floating somewhere in space, with a dummy astronaut called Starman at the driving seat and the round, blue Earth in the background.

"Apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth," nerd hero and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk helped put the bewilderment of us lower mortals in words.

One of the most powerful rockets ever built, SpaceX's >Falcon Heavy roared into space through clear blue skies in its debut test flight on Tuesday from a launch site in the US where manned moon missions once began.

Although it is difficult to turn away from the audacious stunt of an electronic car cruising through deep space with a note saying "DON'T PANIC!" pasted on the dashboard and Bowie singing on the stereo, veterans of space exploration missions in India say there is much more than meets the eye.

This is a breakthrough as far as launch technology is concerned, G Madhavan Nair, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), tells Firstpost. "Using existing technology for space shuttle launches, they have put together a configuration which enabled the largest payload ever to be taken into orbit. And that's a tremendous achievement."

About eight minutes after the impressive launch, >SpaceX capitalised on the cost-cutting reusable rocket technology that it is now synonymous with, and managed to get the two side boosters flying themselves back to Earth for safe, simultaneous touchdowns on twin landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"That is a unique demonstration. Today, the launch costs are very high €" it is something like $20,000 a kilogram, while SpaceX is targeting $2,000 a kilogram. This is going to be of great advantage for anybody who wants to conduct space experiments, and launch satellites," Nair, who was also the secretary to the Department of Space and the chairman of the Space Commission, said.

Nair's predecessor as ISRO chairman, Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, agrees emphatically: "Reusability means reduction of cost. They had already shown this with the Falcon 9, but this launch shows they have mastered the art of employing and reusing strap-on boosters."

He says this launch will have far-reaching consequences. "It is one of the heaviest launch vehicles so far, and will be available to launch all kinds of missions, from near-earth missions to lunar missions, and even missions to the outer reaches of the solar system.

For long planetary missions, we had to use gravitational assist of planetary systems. Those things can now be dispensed with because of the power of these rockets."

But. There's a dummy astronaut sitting in an electronic car cruising on its way to the Mars orbit and then to the Asteroid Belt in zero gravity. Where does that fit in?

"Now, putting a sports car on board is probably only for publicity, but the spirit behind that goes beyond. This car cannot do anything useful around Mars. But at the same time, a day will come when you will have a mobile van equipped with life-support systems sent to Mars or the moon, which functions as a lab, thanks to this experiment. You won't have to go and build a base there to start working," Madhavan says.

"If you want to have a human habitat, you will need large modules. This is a step in that direction."

However, Kasturirangan warns against ignoring the fact that this was only a test flight. Test flights are launched with concrete or steel as a dummy object to simulate the payload systems that will eventually be part of these space exploration missions, he explains.

"The sportscar was sent up to encourage excitement among the layperson about what is happening in space," he says as he gives the example of Voyager-I including a CD about life on earth on its ... voyage through the solar system and beyond.

"This SpaceX payload is destined to run for a billion years in a heliocentric orbit, so if there's a possibility of another civilisation coming across it a billion years hence, it will help them understand what led to technologies such as that," Kasturirangan says.

As absurd and truly beautiful the Tesla looks high up in the sky, it is not going to be easy for it to remain intact for long (or for a billion years, as Musk predicts).

"Space is not friendly. You've got constant harmful radiation with limited protection against it, and there's the danger of travelling particles and so on. You cannot expect an object to stay in space infinitely. It will decay, but that will depend on the extent of collision and radiation it is exposed to," Nair said.

What would it be like if the only payload of an Indian space launch were a $1,00,000 sportscar?

"Ah all these people would say it's a national wastage €" that we are depriving millions of their livelihood and getting into show business. That will be the reaction we would get," Nair laughs.

But Kasturirangan thinks it is a premature hypothesis. "By time we put a sportscar in this kind of a mission and fly it, the India opinion, Indian media and the Indian public's reaction will not be very different (from what we see in the US today) because we would have reached that level of thinking."

"Human beings have to be adventurous and should be able to take risks. That's the one takeaway from this demonstration," he says. View More