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5 Science Lessons to Teach Kids Using Elon Musk’s Orbital Tesla

Or we can always sidestep the science lesson, and host a David Bowie symposium instead.


Space X, the space transport company led by billionaire Elon Musk, successfully launched it’s largest and most powerful rocket on Tuesday. The test flight was a risky one, with only about a 50-50 chance of success. After the successful launch, the Falcon Heavy—which is designed to carry about 64 tons of equipment from the surface into low-Earth orbit—jettisoned Musk’s personal Tesla cruiser. A mannequin wearing Space X prototype suit bounced in the driver’s seat.

For parents with little space explorers on their hands, here are five science lessons you can teach your kids right now, using the news of Elon Musk’s historic launch as a starting point:

That Nifty SpaceX Uniform Is The Future Of Spacesuits

A far cry from the clunky, bulbous suits most people still associate with space travel, the spacesuit that the mannequin wore during the launch looks like something out of Interstellar. And Musk says the spacesuit isn’t just for show—the qualification articles set by NASA demand that Space X must design a spacesuit along those lines in order to operate manned launches. If Space X ever hopes to send people to Mars, the suit (not just the ship) must be tested.

Musk’s Tesla Car Actually Needed To Be On Board 

Musk’s cruiser wasn’t just sent into low orbit as a gag. It was actually a crucial part of getting the rocket to launch smoothly. Ships that sail on the sea require ballast, a heavy object that balances the ship as it cuts through the water. A rocket is essentially cutting through the sky in a similar fashion, so they need ballast as well. Most SpaceX test flights have carried a ballast of concrete or steel blocks. Musk said this “seemed extremely boring” and chose to use his own car, instead.

The Heavy Falcon Was Doing Next-Level Engine Stuff

There were 27  engines and two side-mounted boosters attached to the Heavy Falcon—each had to fire in unison for the rocket to carry its payload through the atmosphere and into space. The two boosters also had to separate from the core during the launch, which is something Space X has never done before. It’s important for the boosters to separate because they become little more than dead weight once the Heavy Falcon reaches low Earth orbit. Recently, SpaceX figured out how to bring the boosters back to Earth in one piece, lowering prep time and future costs.

The Ultimate Goal Is To Go Elliptical

Musk’s erstwhile Tesla is currently on course to travel in a huge elliptical that will take it all the way around the sun and outside the orbit of Mars. Objects in space don’t move in a perfect circle because, even though they’re weightless, they’re still being acted on by gravity. Gravity bends the path of an object into an elliptical shape the closer it gets to the source of that gravity and, unless you’re standing on terra firma, that’s the sun. If the object has enough force to break free of the gravitational pull of the sun, the pull will still be apparent. Hence, an elliptical not a circle.

Navigating An Asteroid Field Is Actually Pretty Easy

A huge item of discussion in the wake of the launch is the fact that the wandering Tesla will pass through an asteroid field. It sounds worse than it is. The idea that asteroids in a belt are even remotely close to each other is a matter of perspective, nurtured by Sci-Fi. While asteroids are not uniformly distributed in the asteroid belt, the distance between them is typically an average of 600,000 miles. That’s two times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. 

Bonus: Meet “Star Man”

Turns out Musk named the mannequin in the driver’s seat of his space-traveling Tesla “Star Man”—a call back to the famous David Bowie song about a man who transmits messages to the Earth’s youth on behalf of an unknown alien. If explaining the science behind the launch doesn’t get the kids excited, a crash course in Bowie—Earth’s very own alien—just might do the trick.