Tuesday, February 13, 2018

SpaceX's car in space

Image: Elon Musk/SpaceX via Instagram

This month SpaceX, Elon Musk's company, launched its Falcon Heavy rocket successfully, which is big enough news to discuss with my students. However, making it even more interesting is that the rocket launched a car into space. The car is a Tesla Roadster and it has a "starman" sitting in the driver's seat.

This topic is interesting for my engineering students for a number of reasons. First, they find Elon Musk to be an interesting entrepreneur and innovator - young, dynamic and not tainted by a bad corporate image. Then, this is about rockets, space, technology and cars - all things my students like to learn about. And this idea seems a bit crazy, unconventional. Finally, there are many implications for the future of the technology used and the successful launch of a non-government rocket. 

There are many articles on all sorts of websites about the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. The one I have chosen is written in a fairly conversational register, but also has useful technical vocabulary and collocations.

The article is from The Guardian, titled SpaceX oddity: how Elon Musk sent a car towards Mars. The subheading is, "A Starman sitting in a tin can is currently navigating the heavens, soundtracked by David Bowie. How did it -- and we -- get there?

Link:  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/space-oddity-elon-musk-spacex-car-mars-falcon-heavy 

In addition to the article, there are two further links; one to a video (1:37) "watch the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket"; and to a graphic showing the path of the Falcon Heavy rocket (which is useful for description). 

The language material that seems useful is also related to description: adjectives, descriptive phrases, and expressions.

Since it is describing the sequence of events, there are also useful phrases of time:

  • now the most powerful rocket
  • during the Apollo era
  • on Tuesday
  • on launch day
  • delayed for over three hours
  • minutes before countdown
  • (don't clap) until you see
  • in the end
  • moments later
  • after that
  • not seen since the 60s
  • before liftoff
  • when (mission CRS-7) was lost
  • for more than a year
  • last February
  • as soon as this year
  • in the meantime
Students can not only notice these phrases, but consider how they could be put in order so that they can relate the events differently.

For relating the information, students can also notice useful collocations, such as:
  • navigating the heavens
  • (be) at the wheel
  • beam down
  • imprinted on (the circuit board)
  • in orbit around
  • music playing on (the speakers)
  • (high-energy radiation belts that) circuit Earth
  • projected path
  • crash into (the planet)
  • stay on course
  • drift through space
  • forcing (it) to close
  • propel into orbit

Finally, there is material for discussion about the future impact of this launch. Elon Musk is quoted in the article as saying,
  • "If we are successful, it's game over for other operators of heavy-lift rockets." 
He goes on to explain:
  • “It’s like where one aircraft company has reusable aircraft and all the other aircraft companies had aircraft that were single-use, and you’d sort of parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash land somewhere. Crazy as it sounds, that’s how the rocket business works.”

And the article concludes with the observation:
  • "The Falcon Heavy's successful launch propels the dream into a new orbit. Plans include building a new space station above the moon, carrying new telecom or spy satellites, and shuttling people to deep space destinations."
Students could have a lot of ideas about the impacts of these changes.