Quick thoughts on the Falcon Heavy launch

Yesterday SpaceX conducted a test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket.  The launch was successful, and two of the three boosters returned successfully.  The payload is apparently headed towards the asteroid belt.

Here is one good video:

A few quick thoughts with my futurist’s hat on:

Geeking out To confess, I’m a longlong space nerd.  I remember as a child watching several Apollo missions on live tv, while building rockets out of Tinkertoys and Legos.  I’ve never lost this love, and carry it on as a pro-space futurist.  For me this nerdery is a combination of personal delight and professional assessment.

I usually resist generalizing from my personal experience, but there are a bunch of folks like me.  Looking forward, this might become a kind of pro-space cadre, an active minority who back such efforts thanks to our vision (or obsession).  At least one teacher celebrated the launch for passing the spacefaring torch to a new generation of kids:

The Falcon Heavy launch openly played to the space nerds.  Not only did we get Douglas Adams referenced in the payload, but said payload – a car delivered to orbit, and viewable live on YouTube (seriously) – was obviously an homage to Heavy Metal (1981)’s opening scene:

Speaking of inspired landings, the booster’s landing on tail fins?  It’s a 1950s echo, for those who recall science fiction of that era.  As some have commented, it’s a landing “like God and Robert Heinlein intended.”

The private sector and plutocracy This is a spectacular example of the private sector picking up from the public domain, at least in the United States.  As NASA continues to drift*, businesses have the opportunity to step in.  We could consider this a form of neoliberalism, especially as firms benefit from NASA and other publicly funded research, and as the federal government acquiesces.

It’s also a sign of plutocracy’s growth.  Musk, a billionaire, can make these things happen mostly because he’s interested in it.  The 21st century’s version of the Gilded Age’s “titans of industry” now have that combination of clout, independence, and social acceptance.

Note the Robert Heinlein reference above, and recall that he was an enthusiastic champion of private space exploration.  In the 1950 film Destination Moon that Heinlein helped create it’s a business that takes humans to Luna, not the government.

Will the private sector build up its lead and become the dominant force in 21st century space exploration?  Musk just called for a new space race. I can imagine SpaceX competing with nations (China) but especially other businesses, like Blue Origin, the creation of Jeff Bezos, apparently the world’s richest human.  Here’s a sign of that over on Twitter:

Will national governments catch up?  The new space race could well be a private-public competition.

More automation Although the middle boost (“center core”) failed to land successfully, note its putative destination: an autonomous ship at sea.  Having robots play major roles in a big engineering project is now par for the course.

Race and gender The cliche of space has long been that it’s primarily a male thing, with a side order of whiteness.  I’m surprised that there’s been little critique of the launch, or of SpaceX in general, from this perspective (Madeline Buxton offered one).  It’s easy enough to remember the 2014 Philae lander/sexist t-shirt story, or to find images like this from yesterday:

SpaceX launch crowd

Screengrab from video above.

So will such critique emerge, and enter the (private) space effort into the culture wars’ lists?  Already many red states celebrate space, like Alabama and Texas, where critical facilities are located.  In contrast, progressives and Democrats have disappointed me for years with their lack of space enthusiasm.  Recall, too, that space privatization really took off under Democratic president Obama. Could blue states or progressives elsewhere launch a charge to reform, restrict, or nationalize SpaceX?  Or should we instead expect a cultural revolution within the (private) space effort, echoing earlier NASA drives for gender and racial diversity?

Which brings me to…

Nationalism and internationalism I expect that the successful Falcon Heavy test fills many Americans with pride.  Taking off from Cape Canaveral’s launch pad 39 surely gave some bouts of nostalgia.  Perhaps some see this as a way for American to return to its space race leadership position, this time alongside not the USSR, but China, India, and Europe.  After all, a call to recapture national pride has long been part of the 20th century’s space race, from the United States to the Soviet Union (check this book).

Unsurprisingly, president MAGA tweeted out nationalistically:

And yet this was only partially an American effort.  Recall that Elon Musk, for all of his American business work, was born in South Africa and had (does he still have?) Canadian citizenship.  Yes, the Tesla is an American car, but it was named after a famed Serbian inventor, and launched to the tune of a British pop star, while a British science fiction writer’s slogan (“DON’T PANIC”) festooned the dashboard.  If we look at yesterday hard, we see a border-crossing event, at least among Anglophonic nations.  Perhaps this transnationalism is the next way forward for space exploration.

That’s enough for now.  What do you make of yesterday’s launch?

*Drift: yes, the robot space exploration enterprise is fantastic, as is exoplanet discovery.  Don’t get me wrong; I love ’em.  I’m instead referring to the stall for human spaceflight, and the presidentially-driven flopping around of strategic direction since 2000 (let’s go to Mars! or get an asteroid! or return to the moon! or do nothing! or go to Mars!).

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10 Responses to Quick thoughts on the Falcon Heavy launch

  1. Before your time, but I remember Sputnik — song title jokes (“It’s only a paper Sputnik” etc) and how the event affected U.S. secondary education.

    You were around for the first man walking on the moon too although you probably wouldn’t remember seeing it if you had. My son did but doesn’t remember. That happened only because I was watching with a friend who insisted that we wake up her boys and mine to watch so they would witness a historical event whether they remembered it or not.

  2. Tom Elliot says:

    Bryan, not sure where you get the whole “progressives and Democrats don’t like space” thing. I think it’s a stretch to say that considering that the whole space push was jump-started by a Democrat. And seriously, nationalizing SpaceX? Even the concept is ridiculous let alone the actuality of it. Politicians in general, Democrats and Republicans, have been an abject failure when it comes to any vision about space. However the enthusiasm for SpaceX and Tesla appears to me to be ideology free. Remember, conservatives have been bad-mouthing Tesla for years and they grudgingly accept SpaceX while progressives/liberals have celebrated Tesla from the start and are either enthusiastic or neutral about SpaceX.

    Musk has also been quite clear that he is creating a space trucking company, not a colonizing one. It’s up to others, either governments or private interests, to handle the heavy lifting on the ground. It strikes me that his is more of a “if you build it they will come” attitude towards the entire enterprise.

    I’ve also been seriously impressed with his willingness to bet the farm, over and over again, in order to make his vision a reality. He has danced past multiple failure points in this endeavor, including with Tesla, any one of which could have bankrupted him and shut down the companies.

    As a progressive I applaud his daring, his willingness to invest in advancing the species, and his lack of a political agenda. As you said NASA does some great things but it is also far too political and far too beholden to political interests to really be innovative.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I agree, Tom, that Musk is very impressive in this. And admit to partially being biased because of a good experience with the PowerWall.

      Why have conservatives criticized Musk? I’ve missed that. Was it because of electric car power, as opposed to their love of oil?

      Re: Democrats, it could well be that I’ve missed a big Democratic space lobby, because I don’t watch tv “news”. But otherwise, well, I haven’t seen much over the past 30 years. Very very few times have I heard Democrats mention space at all, to be honest. In political debates, speeches, platforms, articles, and books, space barely appears.

      To be clear, when you say “the whole “progressives and Democrats don’t like space” thing”, note that I said something a little different: “progressives and Democrats have disappointed me for years with their lack of space enthusiasm.” That’s a different thing. Overwhelmingly Dems just don’t seem to care about space. It’s like Antarctic science for them: not a priority, nice to have from time to time.

      When you add that “the whole space push was jump-started by a Democrat”, I sort of agree, although not without noting it was a Republican (Eisenhower) who launched NASA. But since JFK and LBJ the Dems have backed way off. And we could throw in senator Proxmire, NASA’s leading nemesis for decades, and… a Democrat.

      “the enthusiasm for SpaceX and Tesla appears to me to be ideology free” –
      is it? I cited Heinlein up above; isn’t there a libertarian angle here?

      • Tom Elliot says:

        As you know I believe libertarianism is way overblown and I have a problem with people seeing any impact of a false ideology on just about anything. There are elements of both conservatism and liberalism that can be made to fit what people call libertarianism but really I think it is just elements of those ideologies, calving it off and calling it “libertarian” just doesn’t work for me.

        I was a fan of certain Heinlein books but generally consider him a hack storyteller in his later works that were really nothing but showcases for his self-absorption and ego. The Cat Who Walked Through Walls was the last one I was able to tolerate. It was his libertarian bent that ruined his books for me. I re-read Moon is a Harsh Mistress recently and found it cartoonish. Any resemblance to Musk is purely coincidental.

        I prefer to understand a phenomenon like Musk in his own context, not try to shoehorn him into someone else’s. Doing so, I believe, can cause us to miss key elements of what he is doing.

      • Tom Elliot says:

        As for conservative criticism of Musk, yes, it is largely about his electric car company but there is also a lot of negative press in conservative circles from Fox to the WSJ, whining about government subsidies propping him up (a lie) but of course never about the billions in subsidies that prop up oil and coal.

        Mostly it’s caused by the typical nutjob conservative fever dreams.

  3. Liz says:

    Fellow space-nerd here, especially RE: Mercury/Gemini/Apollo, and I also nerded out watching video of the launch (missed the actual launch because of timing!). Really appreciating all the facets of your take on the launch here. Not sure I have much to add except for this: I am finally, this weekend, building the Lego Saturn V rocket that I bought this summer. I have actually written _poetry_ about the Saturn V (as well as other elements of the U.S. space program of the 60s/70s). Cheers!

  4. Mark Klitzke says:

    As someone who has been trained in the sciences, and works in academia, I too am excited at this new chapter in Space.

    However, I believe that Musk missed the mark by putting a Tesla in space. I think he could have made more than just PR points by including science in the payload [data collection sensors, cameras, etc.].

    I’m pretty sure there are a few Universities that would have jumped at the opportunity for a free / cheap ride into space!

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