Why everyone freaked out about the Falcon Heavy launch (and why you should too)
So billionaire Elon Musk sent a rocket into space–so what? Errr’body is excited about this, and trust me, there’s good reason for it.
What’s this? A rocket was sent to space? … So?
Here’s the jist of it: SpaceX, the most successful commercial aerospace manufacturer of our time, sent its Falcon Heavy rocket into space. Destination: Mars. The planet, yes. That’s an exploit in and of itself, but the main takeaway from yesterday’s rocket launch has actually to do with… its landings.
Picture this: the Falcon Heavy rocket costs $90 million. And then it’s gone, poof, out into space. Ouch. Wallet’s feeling a bit light all of a sudden. The BFR (Big F*cking Rocket) costs BFM (Big F*cking Money).
Now imagine this: you build your $90 million rocket, but you get its side cores back. You send them out, then get them to pivot, turn around, travel back through the atmosphere, land back on Earth… and reuse them.
*This is not profitable yet but a massive step forward nonetheless.
It’s pretty difficult to imagine just how technologically complex is this prowess. It literally is rocket science, and it’s innovative. Therefore I won’t try to school you in something I don’t understand.
Instead, this is what I do understand:
Falcon Heavy went into orbit; the side cores detached; they came back down to Earth and landed themselves on their landing pads. “Flames erupted from their base and guided them back down, upright and ready to be refueled and relaunched. They were back on their launchpads just eight minutes after takeoff” (source).
I feel the need to illustrate just how f*cking cool this was:
WOW. How they managed to land the rockets not only successfully (here’s a compilation of many failed attempts) but so gracefully is beyond me.
OK, landing a rocket back on Earth is cool. But what for?
Have you heard of Musk’s grand project of space tourism? No? Well, the idea is to send civillians around the Moon as soon as this year. The successful launch of Falcon Heavy shows that 1) heavy rockets can be successfully sent out to space and 2) that we can get them (or at least, parts of them) to come back to land safely. This is important because Musk’s ultimate dream project is to send people to Mars. Interplanetary travel is upon us.
“Falcon Heavy is able to take a Dragon mission, taking people around the Moon.”
Basically, the Falcon Heavy mission proves that actual space travel is closer than we thought it would be. Who knows–perhaps the Star Wars aren’t so far removed from our time.
While this mission was a great success, not all parts worked according to plan: the center core didn’t make it to the drone ship that awaited it in the ocean. But the mission is still a definite success.
Still. Musk’s vision is to occupy Mars. Whether he is a visionary or a madman, only time will tell. But if you personally don’t connect with tech, I get that all this may seem quite removed from day to day life.
What does it say about humanity that we spend so much money on rockets, of all things?
Think of it this way. This mission and the whole shabang that goes with it are part of an important narrative on what makes humanity so potent: our curiosity. Because really, we don’t have to send a rocket to space. We don’t need to spend billions of dollars on expeditions whose outcomes we can’t control.
And yet we come together, we work, we learn, we try, we fail, we collaborate and we come together to watch and celebrate our successes. Missions like this one have the ambition to take us further and push the boundaries of what we mean by “possible” or “realistic”. Missions like this one get us to innovate, to collaborate and to dream together.
All of this… Just because we’re curious. As Musk says:
“It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
Although the Falcon rockets and SpaceX projects sometimes feel like they are larger than life, they are deeply connected to the excitable nerds inside all of us. Musk and his team sent a mannequin into space, but they didn’t stop there. They set him up in a Tesla car and named him Starman in reference to David Bowie’s famous song. They wrote “DON’T PANIC” on the car’s dashboard in case he gets scared. They had him listen to Starman on repeat… and then tweet about it.
SHUT UP DAVID BOWIE!!!! Alright guys. You think I’m gonna go to space? THEN SO BE IT. I’d do anything to make him stop singing, I’m begging you. #FalconHeavy
— Starman (@SpaceX_Starman) February 6, 2018
The Falcon Heavy mission, and beyond it the Dragon mission and many aerospace endeavours, speak to the unbound excitement that we all crave. The humour of the team that has worked on this project is humbling: they prove that great work requires passion over solemnity. This mission connects us to the big picture -quite literally- and also to one another.
It also happens to be gorgeous.