The Tesla In Space: Art Or Travesty?

Mark Whittington Contributor

Emily Lakdawalla is famous for two reasons. She is editor for the Planetary Society, the space advocacy organization that is run by former children’s TV program star Bill Nye. She is also the author of a recent tweet in which she announced that she would not see the hit super-hero film “Black Panther” in the first weekend that she did not want to be guilty of “sucking the joy” from the African American members of the audience because of her whiteness.

So it was with some trepidation that I read an essay by Lakdawalla about how SpaceX’s Elon Musk launched his Tesla electric sports car into space on the new Falcon Heavy rocket. A number of people have blasted the idea as a vulgar display of excess by a white male rich guy and not the work of art that it was.

However, at least at first, Lakdawalla’s essay showed promise. She confessed to liking the image of a sports car with the space-suited mannequin called Star Man flying out into the heavens, with the Earth in the background. She stated, “My friend Judy Schmidt correctly identified (I think) why I found joy in the image — it’s because of a lifetime immersed in American imagery of the car, the open road, and the freedom and wide-open possibility it makes me feel.”

In fact, one might go further and suggest that the humanoid figure in the sports car is Elon Musk’s Adam reaching out toward the hand of God. If Lakdawalla had stopped there her essay would have been perfectly fine. Unfortunately, she choose to offer a rhetorical sucker punch. She stated that two things gave her pause about the feat.

“The first was a brief shot from the SpaceX launch broadcast of celebrating Tesla employees. Conspicuously, they were all male, and almost entirely light-skinned. It was a punch in the gut to the white women and people of color feeling otherwise inspired by the launch.”

The strange statement was accompanied by an image that was placed on Twitter by science writer Alan Boyle, which was captioned: “Old space meet new space.” The upper half of the image depicted the flight engineers at NASA’s Mission Control celebrating the first moon landing. The lower half showed those afore-mentioned employees cheering the launch of Falcon Heavy.. Lakdawalla chose to be disturbed by it, viewing the picture through the foggy glass of gender and racial politics, the same attitude that gave her pause about watching a super hero movie that featured a mostly African-American cast.

The second thing that disturbed Lakdawalla was the hostile reception that some people got on social media for throwing shade on the sports car in space. Twitter can be a rough and tumble place, which sometimes requires readers to have a thick skin. However, many of the people who raised the hornet’s nest about the car decided to retreat to their safe spaces when others chose to take offense by blocking rather than engaging them.

Lakdawalla decided to include excerpts of some of these objections from a number of mostly female scientists.

For example, Divya Persaud noted, “The flashiness of the payload also seems symbolically tied to the serial exclusion of certain communities from STEM jobs and, for example, the exploitation of workers in Musk’s other companies and in the corporations historically behind our ‘greatest’ innovations.”

Karen James added, “But when the payload was revealed to be Elon Musk’s ego in the shape of his own Tesla Roadster, our caveman days didn’t seem so far in the past.”

Alice Gorman opined, “Giving up such an expensive car (a new model costs US$200,000) could be seen as a sacrifice for space, but it’s also like burning $100 notes to show how little they mean.”

Art can be said to be in the eye of the beholder. Roman Catholic cardinals were said to have stood on the floor of the Sistine Chapel and complained about Michelangelo’s use of the undraped human form even as the master was painting the ceiling. However, the reactions of Lakdawalla and her friends seem to be colored by PC culture, whether it was complaints about race and gender or slams against the “excess” of capitalism. That the most inspiring feat in rocketry in a long time, partly because of what it implies for the future, should be trashed in this way sucks the joy, as it were, right out of it.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.