Over the past couple of days I have watched every minute of the historic flight of American astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a Crew Dragon capsule. After nearly 10 years of having to send our astronauts into space aboard Russian rockets, we finally have the capability to launch Americans from American soil on an American rocket. I could not be happier about the entire situation. The top photo above shows our three American astronauts aboard the International Space Station along with their two Russian cosmonaut crewmates after the successful docking of the Crew Dragon Demo-2 capsule.
I grew up during the space race of the 1960s. I remember watching Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7 flying a suborbital mission on May 5, 1961. I watched it on TV in my kindergarten class while my classmates complained that “Captain Kangaroo” had been preempted. I tried to explain to them “Don’t you get it? This guy is going to be the first American to ride a rocket into outer space! That’s much cooler than Captain Kangaroo!”
I watched on TV every minute of every launch throughout the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs as well as many space shuttle launches. I built models of Mercury, Gemini, And Apollo capsules and rockets as a kid. It is rare that I miss coverage of any current SpaceX launches. I’m a huge fan of Elon Musk the billionaire entrepreneur engineer genius founder of SpaceX and Tesla. I visit multiple YouTube channels to follow the daily progress of the construction and testing of his new Starship rocket which will someday take astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars. Every man or woman who is ever been to outer space is one of my heroes. I admire them and the teams are dedicated people who put them there.
To put it succinctly… I’m a space fan.
However I am disturbed by some of the questions that have been posed to the astronauts, NASA officials, and Elon Musk about the “inspirational value” of this most recent achievement. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been inspired by the entire space program and I am inspired by what Musk and company have accomplished. It’s a great achievement. But the questions being posed go something like “Given all the turmoil we have in the world today regarding the pandemic and the violence in the streets don’t you think that this accomplishment shows what people can do when they work together?”
The question is often placed in the context of what the US space program did for us in the late 1960s. Set your “Way Back Machine” to 1968. We were at the height of the Vietnam War. There were protests in the streets over the war. There were riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and other places. Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. The country… the world… needed inspiration and hope.
In some small measure, the accomplishments of American astronauts provided that healing sense of hope. It began on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968, in the most watched television broadcast at the time, the crew of Apollo 8 gave a solemn and inspiring reading from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the Moon. It culminated with the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon on July 20, 1969. I remember every detail of those events as I watched them unfold on TV.
Among the things that gave us perspective on our lives and our planet was a photograph taken by Apollo 8 that has come to be known as “Earthrise“. It showed our tiny blue planet rising over the moon as seen by the crew of Apollo 8. See the image at the top of this blog. (credit to NASA) It was not only an inspiring image but it was one that truly gave us a different perspective. Lots of inspiring events claim to “change our perspective” but this was literally a prospective that had never been witnessed by human beings before… the image of our planet as seen from farther away than any human being had ever traveled.
Nothing can completely heal the wounds of the turmoil we experienced in the 1960s. The 1970s with the continuation of the Vietnam War and our own subsequent abandonment of it as well as the damage to our faith in government brought on by the Watergate scandal continue to haunt us to this day. But the events of the Apollo program, while not curing us of our social and political turmoil, did provide an important and significant reminder that the human race is one race and we share this planet together. It’s the only one we’ve got.
Elon Musk is concerned about the fact that it’s the only planet we have. His primary motivation for getting us to Mars is so that we will not be a single planet species. He idealistically believes that the human race can only be saved if we have another home besides Earth. Agree or disagree. He’s a man with a vision.
While the accomplishments of the Dragon Demo 2 mission are an important step to our future exploration and commercialization of space travel, they just don’t have the power to heal us or inspire us in the same way that Apollo did. Our perspective today is no different than it was a week ago.
Let’s be brutally honest about what really happened here. Let’s answer the question much less diplomatically than the astronauts, NASA officials, or Elon Musk have been when answering the question “Can this mission inspire us out of our current turmoil?”
The answer is no. Mostly because this isn’t 1968. Things are much different.
In the 1960s we believed that the Soviet Union was an existential threat to our country and to democracy around the world. Our need to demonstrate our superiority over them was more than just bragging rights. The potential militarization of outer space was a clear danger. Our need to exhibit our mastery of space travel was an important element of the Cold War.
The quest to land human beings on the moon was initiated by John F. Kennedy and sustained by his successor Lyndon Johnson. In a famous address, Kennedy explained that we go to the moon “not because it’s easy but because it’s hard”. An underlying justification for the race to the moon was to be an inspiration and a demonstration of our capabilities as a country. Furthermore the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were both dedicated to and in a large part responsible for civil rights reforms in the 1960s. They were administrations who were actively trying to transform our country into one in which the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” were not just words on an ancient piece of parchment. Those words are among our founding principles to which we must continually strive to make a reality.
But we don’t live in 1968. Elon Musk is not JFK. Elon Musk is a businessman who intends to turn a profit. Although his underlying justification for being in rocket business is to “save the human race from being a single planet species” that comes across as ridiculous hyperbole to most people. We don’t live in 1968 and Lord knows Donald Trump isn’t LBJ. The accomplishments of Crew Demo-2 do not represent a giant leap forward in space exploration. Instead it’s a long overdue fix to a problem that should’ve been solved (and could’ve been solved) 10 years ago if we had had this program in place prior to the retirement of the space shuttle. It doesn’t change our perspective of the earth or of the capability of human accomplishments. Although it represents a new way of doing things in space it doesn’t really break new ground.
Let’s be even more brutally honest. Does Crew Demo-2 provide us with “hope of what can happen if we all work together?” I’m an old white guy who loves everything space related but I am offended by that question in that context.
Let’s rephrase it… “Does the event of 2 college educated, military trained, white guys flying aboard a rocket built by a billionaire white guy who made his billions in the dot-com boom and selling luxury cars give the average young black man hope that he will NOT be murdered in cold blood by a racist police officer with more than a dozen previous complaints against him? Do these SpaceX and NASA employees with high paying government jobs that have continued to work throughout the pandemic give hope to the average middle-class American who is unemployed (along with 20% of all Americans), or to those employed in a job that potentially exposes them to a deadly virus?”
The answer to both is fuck no!
And I am offended by anyone who thinks it could.