A Car in Space? Let Students Ponder Why.

BY Derek Runberg 2/15/18 6:36 AM

On the morning of February 7th I was sitting on my couch drinking my morning coffee with my wife and watching the “Today” show when a segment came up about SpaceX and their groundbreaking launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket. They reported that the test weight, or “mass simulator,” was in fact a Tesla convertible roadster with a mannequin astronaut in it.

Photo Credit: SpaceX

Now, of course, working for SparkFun, this was old news to a geek like me. But to my wife, who really only humors me when I rant and rave about such things, this was totally new. And it brought up the question, “Why a car?”

The easy answer that I gave was, “Because Elon Musk is crazy [in a good way] and does what he wants.”

The rebuttal to that was, “Yeah, but why waste so much money on just a weight? It’s an expensive car, and now it’s just in space!”

My mind went to trying to figure out how much a standard mass simulation would be and, knowing the space industry, it was probably just as much as the car. But then they showed a clip from the press conference where someone asked Musk the very question that I was struggling to answer.

To paraphrase the answer that Musk gave in my words…

We put a car into space because it's never been done before, it makes people think, there is some whimsy in the idea of it, and it’s just plain fun.

Photo Credit: SpaceX

That got an aggressive head nod from me and a thumbs-up at the TV because I agree with Musk. The simple act of launching that rocket was a historic event with thousands of SpaceX employees having worked so hard and the sheer idea of private space reaching this pinnacle – bringing travel to Mars to the forefront of people’s minds. It is inspiring, images are worth a thousand words, and the image of that car in space just inspired a new generation of kids to build an imaginary space helmet from a bucket, put a car in their LEGO rocket and launch that vehicle into their dreams.

Why a car? To inspire. To entertain and exercise the mental freedom to think outside the box. What is your mass simulator? Can you replace it with your car?

How about in your classroom? Can you inspire your students to think more toward the car rather than a standard block of cement? Yes, there are a thousand scientific and engineering reasons that Musk should have used a “real” mass simulator. But, he didn’t! He invested in fun, whimsy and inspiring people to daydream.

As educators, isn’t that our real job? Replace the mass simulators in our classroom every once in a while to invest in smiles and curiosity? My answer is “yes” right out of the gate. Go find your mass simulator, replace it and see what happens. For my students it was gluing the nose cone on model rockets and seeing what happens to them.

I challenge you today to have a conversation with your students. Ask them, “Why a car in space?” The answers will surprise you!