Last week’s SpaceX launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket was clearly designed for maximum glitz. There was no research value in using a Tesla electric roadster as the cargo or positioning a space-suited mannequin in the driver’s seat, as if tooling around the universe on a Sunday drive. But admit it: You smiled.
This spectacular feat deserved all the hype it generated. Americans of all ages and political perspectives have a new source of inspiration.
Environmental activists who want to cheer SpaceX owner Elon Musk’s campaign for cleaner transportation options can view this as the promotional campaign to beat all promotional campaigns. Conservatives can applaud it as the dawn of a new era as the private sector transitions into the driver’s seat while the government cedes its sole dominion over space exploration. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll turn out that the private sector can do it better.
Which is not to say that the government didn’t do a fabulous job getting the space program up and running from the first manned Mercury mission in 1961, to the lunar landing in 1969 and through the space shuttle program from 1981 to 2011. The dangers astronauts endured were formidable. It was the correct decision to maintain the program under government auspices during those formative stages.
After the space shuttle program ended, the federal government throttled down. Congress lost the will to continue funding such an expensive space program. NASA faced major budget cutbacks. Many scientists who had devoted their lives to NASA found themselves without jobs
The nation couldn’t help but feel deflated when NASA wound up having to buy seats aboard Russian space flights just so U.S. astronauts could get to the International Space Station. Moscow’s asking price for each seat skyrocketed from $25 million in 2006 to $81 million today.
The launch of the world’s most powerful rocket cost about $90 million. Musk’s team has cut costs by designing boosters to be reusable. Although SpaceX lost one of Falcon Heavy’s three boosters when it failed to land properly, two other boosters landed simultaneously on their floating platforms with the precision of an Olympic water ballet team.
Musk is finding more efficiencies at every turn. And he’s having fun. The dashboard screen aboard his space car carries the message, “Don’t panic,” drawn from the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The mannequin was positioned with its right hand on the steering wheel and left elbow casually resting on the convertible’s door, as if out for a joy ride.
Private space ventures are in their infancy, and make no mistake, there will be many hiccups – even tragedies – to come. But America is back in the space race in the kind of brash, spectacular way that should make us all cheer. This is the new right stuff.