SpaceX on Tuesday launched Falcon Heavy , the most powerful operational rocket in the world, for thefirst time.
The payload on top was a red Tesla Roadster owned by company founder Elon Musk. His electric car (and some cleverly placedtrinkets) is now in space, helmed by a spacesuit-clad dummy named "Starman" in the driver's seat .
Many people were blown away by thelive video feeds showing a car flying through space as Musk called fora new space race.
The launch far from universally appreciated, though. Critics ridiculed Musk and SpaceX for the payload, which Muskpreviously said would be "the silliest thing we can imagine," as a wasted opportunity to send something scientific, educational, or otherwise practically useful into space. (On test launches, however, aerospace companies traditionally fly concrete blocks since the rocketsmight explode.)
However, according to Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator, the company offered the US government a chance to fly whatever payload it wanted — free of charge — before deciding on Musk's car.
"I was told by a SpaceX VP at the launch that they offered free launches to NASA, Air Force etc. but got no takers. A student developed experiment or early tech demo could have led to even more new knowledge from the mission," Garver tweeted on Thursday evening. "The Tesla gimmick was the backup."
Business Insider contacted SpaceX and NASA for more details about the offer (which was worth about $90 million) and why the opportunity was declined, but we didn't receive a response before this story was published.
The last photo of "Starman" in Elon Musk's red Tesla Roadster as it flies toward Mars orbit. Earth is the bright crescent seen in the background. Elon Musk/SpaceX via Instagram
Falcon Heavy can "lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb) — a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel," according to SpaceX. But there may be a few reasons why government officials essentially turned down a $90 million ticket to space aboard the rocket.
First, NASA, USAF, and other government agencies have very low thresholds for risk, since they don't want a fiery explosion to cause them to lose potentially billion-dollar taxpayer investments. And an explosion is precisely what Musk had said could happen for the better part of a year leading up to Tuesday's launch.
"I'll consider it a win if it clears the pad and doesn't blow the pad to smithereens," Musk told Business Insider on Monday during a press briefing.
Garver later suggested that the offer may have come too late or too casually to be taken seriously by NASA, USAF, and other divisions that SpaceX may have contacted. Indeed, it can take several years and millions of dollars to build and test even a small satellite that can function in the harsh environment of space.
"I have no idea when Elon decided on the car & the opportunity offered to the govt could have been for smaller payloads, low cost v. free etc.," Garver later tweeted . "I'm sure [SpaceX] would call the car idea brilliant & provocative."
She continued : "If only informal inquiries were made & there was no serious interest, that is understandable," adding that this is especially true for a first-time vehicle, and with a late inquiry. "Tesla had to have been planned for awhile."
A USAF Space Command representative said that if any offer was made, it was likely not a formal one and therefore not a matter of record.
"There were no official offers to launch a payload on the Falcon Heavy for free made to the Air Force," she told Business Insider in an email.
If we hear more from SpaceX or NASA, we'll update this post.