I have to say that when the two Falcon Heavy boosters touched down, in perfect synchrony, after shooting their record breaking payload into orbit, i felt pretty emotional. It wasn’t just the wild applause, or the bursts of Bowie’s ‘Space Odyssey’ looping away in the background, but rather a sense of wonderment and excitement. Wonder at the ambition of Elon Musk, pushing open new frontiers, and excitement at what feels like the real start of a new phase of exploration and discovery.
The rovers, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, have been trundling around on their record breaking rambles for years, but they have always felt ‘alien’. Somehow the playthings of NASA: they are engineering in raw form, all aluminium, Meccano , and wires. They are not real, in any real sense. They have not given me a tangible connection to the Red Planet.
Seeing Musks roadster heading into orbit does. I know what a second hand car looks like, because i have one. Not a Tesla, admittedly, but a car is a car: they have weight, heft, they are familiar. They are heavy. And now, i can see one flying through space. That’s a weirdly personal connection. I think it means i can ‘feel’ that we could possibly send a shipping container that way, a mobile home maybe, perhaps a dozen astronauts. In a minibus. By seeking to achieve the impossible, he may have achieved the unthinkable. That maybe that first step, the step onto Mars, is within our grasp.
Coincidentally, he may have disrupted the rest of the space agency around him, not specifically through technological achievement (though he has done that), but through shifting the paradigm: reusability, rapid failure, radical success. He has imparted something of that most impossible substance: momentum.
I realise i sound at risk of idolising Musk, partly because i am: i admire the vision, and recognise that his success is substantially socially moderated. The investors are not cutting him down because they are just too bemused, or even scared, to do so. ‘What if it turns out that he is right?’. What if he can really do what he set out to do?
In the fire and fury of a rocket engine, he demonstrated those most delicate of things: hope, dreams, and aspiration.