On Saturday, May 30, American
astronauts flew into orbit on an American-made space vehicle for the first time
since 2011. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket
carried Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both veterans of the old Space Shuttle
program, inside the Dragon capsule, and once the capsule separated safely, the
first stage returned automatically to earth and landed intact on a barge to be
reused. Meanwhile, the Dragon capsule
has been catching up to the International Space Station (ISS) where, assuming
the docking goes smoothly this morning (I’m writing this Sunday), the astronauts
will stay for the next several months.
The return flight in the Dragon capsule is planned to end in the ocean,
a mode of re-entry that hasn’t been done for over forty years.
Many news reports remarked
on the contrast between the good news of a successful launch and the general
tone of recent U. S. news events: the
COVID-19 virus and all its consequences, riots over police brutality, and so
on. But this is nothing new.
The space race between the
U. S. and the USSR over who would get to the moon first was conducted during
what was probably the most tumultuous decade in the last half of the twentieth
century. The 1960s were not exactly
peaceful: the Vietnam War, antiwar
protests, race riots, and the sexual revolution are just a few items of turmoil
that come to mind. But amid all the
strife, America found the will and the capability to land men on the moon on July
Engineers are not much into
symbolism. But space exploration carries
a heavy load of symbolism, and it’s worthwhile considering what that means in
light of the huge effort and expense that sending people into space entails.
In retrospect, the Apollo
program was mainly a way to carry on the Cold War by peaceful means. Its extraordinary expense was justified not
for scientific reasons, although there was some useful science done. But being the first nation to put men on the
moon would show our technological superiority to the world, and in an age
dominated by technology, that achievement had implications that everyone
understood. It took a couple more
decades for the USSR to crumble away, but it did. Nevertheless, in their rough-and-ready way,
the Russians maintained their ability to travel into space despite all kinds of
political reverses, and once the Space Shuttle program outlived its usefulness,
America turned inward with regard to space and paid taxi fare to the Russians
to put people on the International Space Station.
When one asks about the
ultimate motivations of the younger generation of space cadets—Elon Musk being
their spiritual leader—the answer isn’t as clear-cut as it was for my
generation. Nationalism pure and simple
doesn’t seem to be a big factor, although Musk is enough of an American to take
pride in the fact that the rocket was made here and launched from here.
To be sure, profit is a
motive as well. That’s why the fact that
SpaceX and not NASA was the builder of the rocket is so significant. It may be the case that SpaceX is a long way
from turning a profit with direct commercial space activities, as opposed to
government-subsidized projects such as the ISS launches. But with ideas such as asteroid mining
around, it may be that some of the next great fortunes may be made in
If I had to guess, though, I’d
say that the new space explorers see themselves taking part in a long-term
project that will end up putting significant numbers of people out in space, in
places that will be just as habitable as Earth, if not more so. Every so often I come across a student who
wants to get involved in the space program somehow, and there’s often a kind of
glitter in their eye when they talk about it.
The phrase “manifest destiny” has fallen under a cloud in
recent years, as its original meaning that the United States was destined to
conquer the whole midsection of the North American continent has been taken to
be insensitive to the people (and animals) who were already here. But presumably, displacing natives is not a
big problem in the solar system, at least.
And believing that humanity is fated to found colonies on other planets,
and perhaps beyond the solar system, seems to be close to an article of faith
for many space enthusiasts.
It’s interesting that the
word “fate” came up in a quote from Musk himself as he commented on
the successful launch yesterday.
Remarking on the contrast between Saturday’s successful launch and the earlier
attempts that were scrubbed by weather conditions, he said, “Today, I
don’t know, it felt like just the fates were aligned.”
Without putting undue weight
on what may have been just an offhand remark, I think it’s interesting that the
leader of the company that launched Americans into space for the first time in
nearly a decade attributes success to the fates being aligned.
Musk mixed his metaphors,
for one thing. The usual phrase is to
say that the stars are aligned, which harks back to the time when
astrology—forecasting auspicious times and events by observing stars and
planets—was every bit as respectable as forecasting the progress of pandemics
is today. And the Fates were
mythological goddesses who presumably determined one’s lifespan and, well, fate
in life. Either way, he was saying that
despite all the highly technical and cross-checked planning involved, there is
an element in the venture that wasn’t under human control. But we don’t believe in Fates or astrology
any more, do we?
It depends on what you think
life and the world are about. If the
most one has to look forward to is playing a brief role on a stage where your
only hope of immortality is to make a big splash that will be remembered by
future generations, then living a Musk-like life makes some sense, especially
if humanity is fated to live among the stars. Then you will be viewed by future generations
as a Columbus (if that name isn’t too offensive any more), or someone equally
famous for venturing out to discover and eventually populate new worlds.
But if everything we do and
are is owing to a supernatural Ground of existence, namely a God who is
intensely interested in what we puny humans do, then one has a different
perspective on things. It still may be
worth while to explore space, and even for some people to live there. But other priorities and other goals may
Sources: I viewed
the pre-launch clip and read the accompanying news copy about the SpaceX launch