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Space Enthusiasts Gather In Florida As Powerful Rocket Is Set To Launch


NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is in our studios. And, Nell, would you remind us the story of Elon Musk?

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Elon Musk is a sort of showman/entrepreneur/rocket guy, electric car company guy.

INSKEEP: Oh, Tesla is his company, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He made a ton of money back in the day with an Internet company that became PayPal, and then he decided, what is he going to do with this money? What are the grand challenges that face humanity? And he decided it was energy, right? So he decided to start an electric car company. And he thought, possible extinction event, humanity could be destroyed, we need to get off this planet. So he founded a rocket company called SpaceX.

INSKEEP: Which he's thinking of as kind of a fire escape, so to speak.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: An insurance policy. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: And we bring him up because Elon Musk is in the news. That company, SpaceX, has a big rocket on the launch pad with a big goal. It's called Falcon Heavy. What is it, Nell?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It is going to be the most powerful rocket flying today. So it is not more heavy than NASA's famous moon rocket, the Saturn V, that took astronauts to the moon, but it is bigger than anything else flying today, and it is, like, way cheaper. It costs only about 90 million bucks to put about twice as much mass to orbit as the nearest competitor. So everyone in the space community is hugely excited about this. There are tens of thousands of people gathering in Florida to watch this thing take off later today.

INSKEEP: OK. So - cheap. That's part of his idea, is to have something that's actually profitable or at least affordable?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He wants to make a profit, for sure, but his attitude is, spaceflight is never going to really take off, we're never really going to get far out into space if rockets keep being so expensive. I mean, his argument is, think of the commercial airline industry. Would we all be flying airplanes all around the world if every time you flew an airplane, you basically had to throw it out after you finished using it? And that's basically, until now, what rocket companies have been doing. They send something up, and then the rocket falls in the ocean.

INSKEEP: So Falcon Heavy. You said lots more mass than other rockets, meaning it can carry a heavier payload. I'm just thinking, if you owned, like, a car company, would you, like, maybe try to promote the car company by, like, sending a car into space or something like that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, that would be a crazy idea, Steve. But if you were Elon Musk, that would sound good to you. He's got this cherry-red car, his electric car, Tesla car, that he has put as the dummy payload on this rocket. So normally when you test a rocket, you've got to put something on it, a big hunk of metal or something. But Elon Musk thought that would be boring, and so he decided to put his car...

INSKEEP: When you say his car - like, out of his driveway?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His vehicle that he commutes with. That is my understanding. And inside the car, sort of propped up there with this sort of, like, arm, like, sticking out like it's cruising, is this dummy in a space suit, which he's calling Starman. And his idea is he's going to send this way out into space and it's going to be blasting David Bowie's "Space Oddity."

INSKEEP: OK. Setting aside the moment when he's going to get, like, the photograph from the traffic police saying that the car was speeding...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The car has cameras on it. He says it's going to send back epic views.

INSKEEP: Oh, my gosh. OK. Fine. Fine. So there we go. Setting that aside, what is the big goal here for Elon Musk? You said something about a fire escape for the planet.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He wants the human species to be multi-planetary. He wants to get people on Mars. I mean, his big goal is Mars.

INSKEEP: Which means lots of stuff. Like, we would bring baggage if we were to move to Mars, or if any of us were to move to Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His attitude is if it's going to happen, spaceflight's got to be cheap. We've got to be able to send lots of stuff to Mars cheaply, quickly over and over again.


I think next time they should bring my Mazda Protege up.

INSKEEP: Go for that.

MARTIN: Yeah, hatchback.

INSKEEP: That's totally fine. Give him a call. Let him know if he's willing to do that. OK. So we'll watch and see what happens with Falcon Heavy. Nell, thanks very much.


INSKEEP: That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.