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:
Watched the @spacex launch with @crichsv our students. Reaction to seeing the @teslamotors Roadster floating far above the world; planet Earth is blue. Thanks @elonmusk for inspiring the next generation. #whyrandolph #rstories18 #spacex #majortom https://t.co/SeCiF1mNM4 pic.twitter.com/k2BXig0Oef
— Lindsey Dunnavant (@LindzDunnavant) February 6, 2018
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:
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) February 5, 2018
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:
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:
Congratulations @ElonMusk and @SpaceX on the successful #FalconHeavy launch. This achievement, along with @NASA’s commercial and international partners, continues to show American ingenuity at its best! pic.twitter.com/eZfLSpyJPK
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 7, 2018
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!).