By Johna Till Johnson
You go on a trip. You come back. Nothing remarkable about that.
Unless you’re a rocket, and you’ve gone up into space and then returned to land upright. Which is what Falcon 9, the rocket launched by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, did on Monday, December 21.
A video gives a better idea of the achievement:
The ability to return a rocket to Earth, undamaged, means that rockets become reusable—which means dramatically reducing the cost of space travel. This is a critical step in enabling support of large-scale permanent space stations. And, “reducing the cost of space travel means we could colonize Mars,” explains a journalist in this fascinating video documenting Monday’s event in detail:
Falcon 9 isn’t the first rocket to return from space. New Shepard, a rocket produced by Blue Origin—Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company—did an up-and-back flight last month. There’s a key difference, though: the New Shepard flight was entirely sub-orbital—it reached the boundary of space, but was not designed to reach orbit or launch anything into orbit. In contrast, Falcon, a much larger rocket, 9 launched 11 commercial satellites into orbit.
In this flight, only the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket returned, while the second stage pushed the rocket’s payload into orbit. But in future, SpaceX plans to have both stages of the rocket return to Earth.
It’s hard to overstate what a critical moment this is.
Just as the Wright brothers’ flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903 launched a century of dramatic transformation, this flight marks the dawn of a new space age. The next 30 years will bring changes that today we can only begin to imagine—and that until a few years ago space experts believed would be impossible. Whether it’s Blue Origin or SpaceX or some other company that succeeds in mastering the technology, we’ve entered a new era.
Watching the second video through is particularly emotional for those of us old enough to have several decades of historical context. In so many ways it marks a transition, a changing of the guard—culturally and philosophically as much as technically.
I’m old enough to remember the original space race. NASA’s white-shirted, pocket-protected engineers have been replaced by California-casual T-shirted hipsters—marking not just a transition from government-funded to private enterprise, but also a shift from a top-down, pseudo-military engineering culture to a more distributed, collaborative one.
I’ve lived through the public-private transition. As a young graduate student, I transferred physics data across the government-operated DARPANET, later ARPANET—the precursor to today’s commercial Internet. I watched the hand-off from government innovation to commercial development (and earned a living helping companies incorporate the new communications technology). So I’m well aware that this is a significant transition: what government (and possibly only government) could launch, private enterprise (and possibly only private enterprise) can transform into a core component of society.
More significantly—for me at least—the launch feels like a hopeful bookend to the last 70 years.
As the rocket launches, it glows brightly, an artificial sun eerily reminiscent of the first atomic bomb.
I’m not old enough to remember that, but I’ve watched the old films. Watching the first bombs detonate, I’ve often thought about the bittersweet fact that enormous human ingenuity went into developing a powerful technology that, yes, ended the bloodiest war the world had ever known, but also killed millions of civilians and launched the Cold War.
Those who don’t remember it are probably unaware of the psychological impact of the Cold War. For the first 20 years of my life, I truly didn’t believe I’d live to be 30. I was confident the US and USSR would manage to self-destruct in a nuclear holocaust. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed that. But although the fear abated, no positive, hopeful vision really took its place. By the end of the 1990s, we Americans internalized the sense of a closed frontier—and if the tech crash didn’t confirm it, the terrorist attack in 2001 surely did. For all of us humans on Earth—not just Americans—the era of exploration seemed irrevocably over.
Sure, there was Star Trek and Star Wars and various other science fiction, but by the 21st century we’d begun to accept that space exploration would never really happen. My father, a former nuclear submariner, used to talk about how humans would one day make it to the stars, but by the time he died (in 2008) he was almost alone in his conviction.
As I watched the artificial sun of the returning rocket, I was overwhelmed with emotion. It seemed to me to mark the end of an era as well as the beginning of a new one.
The artificial sun of the first atomic bomb launched 70 years of fear, war, depression, and constricted dreams. The artificial sun of the returning rocket brings with it the return of the limitless frontier—and the hope and possibility of peaceful exploration and expansion.
The rocket touches down at about minute 32 in the second video and stands perfectly, beautifully, impossibly upright. And the crowd of young California engineers goes absolutely wild, shouting, screaming, and hugging each other. “Holy shit we did it!” one shouts. “Unbelievable!” shouts another.
The crowd breaks into a chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!”, which feels a bit self-conscious. This event is groundbreaking, yes, but not for just one country. It’s bigger than that. It belongs to all humanity.
“We made history today,” says the narrator. Yes. Yes, we did. And with luck and effort, we’ve launched a new, hopeful, promising era. Possibly even the greatest one humanity has ever known.
All with one brief up-and-back.