Throughout modern human history our heads have been in the stars. Science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams whisked our imaginations into the heavens with stories about interstellar space travel and strange new worlds.
On the screen, Star Trek boldy took us on vicarious space adventures with Captain Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Starship Enterprise crew.
Amongst all this literary head-in-the-stars stuff there was real science happening in the real world. We can count ourselves lucky to be living in an exciting time where Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind with that first small step on the Moon, while more recently the International Space Station and Hubble telescope have brought the universe ever closer to us.
And now Elon Musk has just become the coolest guy in the solar system by launching a car into space. The Tesla CEO’s own personal car was the payload aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket when it took to space for its much-publicised maiden flight last week.
Both SpaceX and Tesla belong to the billionaire South African-born entrepreneur, and the much publicised launch was an important milestone for SpaceX: the Falcon Heavy is able to launch much heavier loads into space than other spacecraft, and at a much cheaper cost due to the reusability of its rockets. Instead of crashing into the ocean as was previously standard practice, the rocket boosters land themselves safely.
But Elon’s a showman and, having grown up on a diet of Douglas Adams et al, couldn’t resist a bit of space theatre during last week’s launch: in the driver’s seat of his Tesla Roadster was a mannequin dressed up in a space suit (pictured above), and playing on the car stereo was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”.
In a nod to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy book, its famous message “Don’t Panic” is displayed on the Tesla’s infotainment screen, and inside the glove compartment is a copy of the book, along with a towel. If you don’t know what the towel’s for, read the book (you’ll be glad you did). The Tesla will become a fixture in our solar system as it orbits the Sun at a speed of around 89 000km/h - for millions of years unless someone goes and picks it up one day as a museum piece.
Visionary dreamers like Musk make yesterday’s science-fiction become today’s reality, and apart from his exotic space exploits and his stated mission to one day establish a human colony on Mars, his more down-to-Earth feats have been to try and revolutionise terrestrial travel.
His Tesla company was at the vanguard of the electric-car era and he was selling battery-powered cars to the public a number of years before the likes of the BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf came along. It’s early days yet, but in the next few decades as longer-life batteries are developed and quick-charging infrastructures are set up, electric cars will take over from combustion-engined cars as the norm.
The South African-born Musk also proposes to make subterranean travel much cheaper with his Boring company, while his Hyperloop concept aims to whisk commuters long distances overland in high-speed vacuum tubes.
Another local achiever in the travel technology field, albeit with his feet firmly planted on the ground, is Johannesburg civil engineer Clement Mokoenene, who last week won the SA Chivas Venture IV competition for his innovative electricity generation idea.
His Vehicle Energy Harvesting System (VEHS) uses a specialised rubbery overlay on a road to extract pressure as cars drive over it and transfers the energy to a pipeline system on the side of the road.
This way, high volumes of traffic energy are converted into electricity in a sustainable way. Mokoenene’s invention is being entered in the international leg of the Chivas Venture IV competition to be held in Amsterdam in May, and we’ll be keenly watching the outcome.
With all our troubled politics it’s nice to be able to share some collective national pride and raise our glasses to visionary South Africans who are making the world a better place.
* As we celebrate things technological, join us on our own leap into this space with the launch of our Augmented Reality feature. Give it a try: download the IOL News app on your Android or IOS device, click the camera icon, and scan Elon Musk’s photo (above).