Restoring a Sense of Childlike Wonder
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.