Restor­ing a Sense of Child­like Won­der

Science Illustrated - - CONTENTS - An­thony Ford­ham aford­ham@next­media.com.au

As we put the fin­ish­ing touches on this edi­tion of Science Il­lus­trated, SpaceX cel­e­brated a ma­jor achieve­ment: the suc­cess­ful launch (and 66% suc­cess­ful re­trieval) of its Fal­con Heavy rocket. It’s a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in com­mer­cial space­flight, be­cause the Fal­con Heavy is the first op­er­a­tional rocket since Apollo’s Saturn V, ca­pa­ble of send­ing hu­mans out­side Earth or­bit.

That’s right: since the 1970s, we’ve lacked a rocket big enough to achieve true es­cape ve­loc­ity and even get hu­mans back to the Moon. The Space Shut­tle was all about lift­ing a huge or­biter to Earth or­bit, and the rock­ets that ser­vice the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (in­clud­ing SpaceX’s Fal­con 9) can’t lift their pay­loads any fur­ther.

Only probes and rovers can get into ac­tual space, since they weigh so much less than a fully-equipped cap­sule ca­pa­ble of pro­tect­ing and sus­tain­ing even a sin­gle as­tro­naut.

Un­til now. With the test of the Fal­con Heavy on 6th February 2017, two or even three new gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple saw the spec­ta­cle of a prop­erly BIG rocket head­ing for space.

Even more in­ter­est­ing than the launch it­self was the so­cial me­dia re­ac­tion. Sud­denly, the in­ter­net was alight with a sense of child­like won­der, as a dummy as­tro­naut in an ob­so­lete Tesla Road­ster drifted through space, its slow tum­ble re­veal­ing a beau­ti­ful Earth ev­ery few min­utes. You can Google the live stream of “Star­man” for as long as his cam­era bat­ter­ies last (and of course watch re­plays of his ad­ven­ture for­ever on YouTube).

Un­like a su­per-se­ri­ous mil­i­tary-backed NASA launch, the Fal­con Heavy test had a sense of fun. I mean, the test pay­load isn’t an empty Dragon cap­sule, it’s a dummy in a car who will be put into an or­bit that takes him out beyond Mars. And in the cen­tre con­sole of his road­ster are the fa­mil­iar words from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: DON’T PANIC.

Space ex­plo­ration has al­ways been deadly se­ri­ous. And why not? The cost of each NASA launch was al­ways, par­don the pun, astro­nom­i­cal, be­cause ev­ery sys­tem had to be triple or quadru­ple re­dun­dant. If SpaceX loses a rocket (like it lost the cen­tre core of the Fal­con Heavy on this launch when it failed to re­light enough of its en­gines and hit the ocean at hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres an hour), ev­ery­one can just laugh and say “haha, SpaceX lost money!” If a gov­ern­ment loses a bil­lion dol­lar rocket or - far worse - hu­man lives, it can set a space pro­gram back by decades. Can and has: Chal­lenger and Columbia are tragic ev­i­dence of that.

But with SpaceX tak­ing the risk, para­dox­i­cally the cost of launch­ing the Fal­con Heavy is much, much cheaper than an equiv­a­lent NASA rocket. NASA’s up­com­ing Space Launch Sys­tem, though more pow­er­ful, may cost as much as a bil­lion dol­lars per launch. The Fal­con Heavy, thanks in no small part to its re­us­able en­gines, will even­tu­ally cost just $90 mil­lion.

Dur­ing the launch in February, SpaceX’s con­trol cen­tre was full of cheer­ing peo­ple. There was a fes­ti­val at­mos­phere, a feel­ing of an amaz­ing yet quite per­sonal achieve­ment. Con­trast that with the more sub­dued NASA launches of the 1970s and 1980s - a bunch of dudes (and very few women) who looked like ac­coun­tants, try­ing not to cheer too loudly in case the Gen­er­als in the rear gallery got them in trou­ble...

The Fal­con Heavy, and other sys­tems that will come af­ter it, is an im­por­tant new step in the his­tory of hu­man space ex­plo­ration. It’s space­flight for a new gen­er­a­tion, mo­ti­vated not by a mil­i­tary arms race or Cold War para­noia, but in­stead by the over­rid­ing rea­son we need to go to space: be­cause it’s there.

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