In 2012, when the space shuttle Discovery flew above Washington, D.C., on its way to retirement at the National Air and Space Museum, a reporter asked astronaut Anna Fisher if she had any advice for a boy who wanted to travel to the stars. Sure, Fisher said. "Study Russian."
I hope this young man caught a glimpse of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket launch on Tuesday, because he might not have to study Russian after all. Twenty-seven engines generated more than 5 million pounds of thrust—the equivalent, says SpaceX, of "approximately eighteen 747 aircraft"—and propelled a 140,000-pound payload into low earth orbit. The blast was incredible: an arc of flame and steam reaching for the heavens. But even that was not the most amazing image of the day.
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Take your pick. For starters: Falcon Heavy's booster rockets, or side cores, detaching and then landing after takeoff.
Or perhaps you prefer this: On its maiden voyage, Falcon Heavy spirited into the cosmos a bright red Tesla, driven by a mannequin named "Starman," whose destination is Mars and, beyond that, the Asteroid Belt. Talk about product placement.
Yet the choice of cargo is more than marketing genius. The pictures of Starman in his roadster above the Earth are not only glamorous and futuristic. They are inspiring. They are perfect representations of the centuries-old dream of mankind taking flight, guided by science and ingenuity to become a gravity-defying, multi-planetary species.
It was precisely this dream that seemed jeopardized by President Obama's 2010 decision to cancel our return to the moon. Not only did America cede the final frontier to Russia and China. The policy lowered our sights. It tempered our dreams. Certain possibilities, such as Americans on the red planet, appeared to be closed off.
NASA's robot explorers, who have traveled to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Asteroid Belt, are scrappy and intrepid. They have told us much about the solar system. But they are not very exciting. They make for good copy in Discover and Scientific American, but they do not quicken the pulse or exhilarate the imagination. Only a vision of the human future in space can do that.
And that is what SpaceX and Tesla's founder, Elon Musk, has given us. Now, Musk has visions by the bucketful. Some, like the hyper-loop, make me raise an eyebrow. Others, like widespread use of electric cars, are plausible—for the wealthy. But space exploration is different. For one thing, we know how to get to space. It's a matter of money, engineering, and willpower. Nor is space just another luxury good. It has the potential to enrich, enlighten, enrapture, and stir the pride of us all.
One might have been inclined to dismiss Musk last September, when he announced that Falcon Heavy is a step toward a combination booster rocket and space ship that, if all goes according to plan, will take humans to Mars by 2024. But after the success of Falcon Heavy, Musk should not and cannot be ignored. Indeed, when the side cores landed intact, our future in space did not just seem probable. It seemed inevitable.
Nor am I the only space nerd who's thrilled by what he saw. "The moon is now within reach," said the president of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin, in a statement. "Mars is now within reach." Science writer Eric Berger wrote, "For those who want to do more things in space, be it mining asteroids, digging lunar ice from the Moon's poles, or, yes, one day setting foot on Mars, such a future seems vastly more tangible today."
In an irony of history, it may have been President Obama's diminishment of NASA that led to the explosion in commercial spaceflight of which SpaceX is a part. Musk has competition, including the world's richest man, Jeff Bezos, who wished his fellow billionaire good luck in a tweet before the launch. Where government regulation, bureaucracy, risk-aversion, inertia, and entropy limited the horizon of manned space exploration, the private space industry is abuzz with innovation, efficiencies, and entrepreneurship. And in lifting our spirits and broadening our vision of the future, Musk may have also burnished the reputation of his fellow titans in Silicon Valley, who have come under criticism for their partisanship, dogmatism, and encroaching control over politics and debate.
"Five hundred years from now," Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2000,
a time as distant from us as is Columbus—a party of settlers on excursion to Mars's South Pole will stumble across some strange wreckage, just as today we stumble across the wreckage of long-forgotten ships caught in Arctic ice. They'll wonder what manner of creature it was that sent it. What will we have told them? That after millennia of gazing at the heavens, we took one step into the void, then turned and, for the longest time, retreated to home and hearth? Or that we retained our nerve and hunger for horizons, and embraced our destiny?
After the launch of Falcon Heavy, I am more confident in answering Krauthammer's question. We will get there, thanks in large part to visionaries like Elon Musk. So let the man get back to work. And get out of his way.