By Patrick Mullane, Author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing up an Astronaut's Kid in the Glorious 80s, a humorous coming-of-age memoir. Order signed copies on this website or at Amazon here.
Note: I wrote this article in February of 2018. Given the recent successes of SpaceX, I thought it worth revisiting ...
It’s easy, as an American in today’s volatile and sometimes caustic political environment, to think that the United States’ best times are behind it, that “American exceptionalism” is as anachronistic a concept as blood-letting to cure disease. But then something happens that proves that the American dream and the exceptionalism it can spawn is alive and well. One of those moments was yesterday, February 6th, 2018 with the launch of SpaceX Corporation’s Falcon Heavy Lift rocket. The successful launch was quintessentially American on almost every level and deserves to be placed alongside landing on the moon and the first flight at Kitty Hawk in the pantheon of amazing aerospace accomplishments.
First, just a decade or so ago, it was thought that space travel in any significant form required government funding and management. Only the government, it was argued, could afford the massive capital investment needed and only government could maintain the long view necessary to ensure what was started got finished. But free people with both profit motive and a desire to dare truly great things are capable of stunning achievements. To be sure, the United States isn’t the only country in the world where free people dare great things. But America is perhaps unique in that its economic system, university networks, venture capital process, and tolerance for failure allow wealth to be created on a scale never before seen in human history. And while the gap between rich and poor is something that we should concern ourselves with, huge private sector projects – like launching rockets – wouldn’t get done without massive amounts of wealth.
The SpaceX story is quintessentially American for another reason: an immigrant led the charge. Elon Musk, the company’s founder, is South African by birth and then studied – after a stop at a university in Canada – in the United States before founding (among other things) PayPal and Tesla. I bring up this point not as a political one but to note that both dollars and people reach their highest potential when they can flow freely to the place they can most efficiently be used. That’s not an argument for open borders; no rules regarding immigration would have secondary negative effects that could make things bad for both immigrants and those who are already citizens. But it is an argument for sensible policies that allow people like Musk, who studied at Penn and Stanford, to find their way here along with others who may not start a tech unicorn or even go to college but would contribute in their own way to both a vibrant economy and culture.
Finally, the most American thing about SpaceX’s achievement this week was the aplomb and showmanship demonstrated when it executed its high-profile launch. First there was the rowdy cheering at the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA overheard during the broadcast of the liftoff. It left many wondering (including me), “Where the hell is that noise coming from?” Gone are the days of the buttoned-up cool confidence of NASA controllers speaking in the same emotionless tone no matter the gravity of the situation. It’s been replaced by the shameless audacity of raucous wunderkinds who fear nothing. Second, there was the payload of the Falcon rocket: a Tesla vehicle with a “dummy” astronaut at the wheel. It was a marketing master stroke of such absurdity that it left many incredulous. He put what on top of the rocket? He couldn’t have possibly done that … could he? It was the sort of thing that stoked the imagination of young people everywhere. How much less exciting would the launch have been if its first payload was a meteorological satellite? By that act alone, Musk and SpaceX made space, science, and engineering fun. It was a move that was one-third Neil Armstrong, one-third P.T. Barnum, one-third Dr. Seuss, and one thousand parts American. Good for you Elon. Can’t wait for the next chapter.
Patrick Mullane is the author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing up an Astronaut's Kid in the Glorious 80s, a humorous coming-of-age memoir. Order signed copies on this website or at Amazon here.