On February 6th, 2018, the US got back into the Space Race in a huge way. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy completed its first test flight, and it did so with a great deal of flair and skillful marketing of space travel, through the use of excellent media coverage, the expression of honest-to-goodness excitement by a company that is freely seeking to conquer the challenge of interplanetary travel and colonization, and a simple and attractive way to show the world what can be done.
This was most notably symbolized in the sending of a Tesla Roadster, Elon’s Musk’s own car, with a dummy in a SpaceX astronaut suit. The Roadster is supplemented by many cameras that allowed viewers several hours of live viewing in real time as the Roadster left Earth for possibly billions of years, in an orbit reaching well past that of Mars. The final touch was the message on the dash screen, speaking to an incredibly wide audience:
As of 10:30 am (Greenwich Mean Time, or UTC) on Friday February 9, the Roadster was already 449,808 miles away from Earth, traveling away from Earth at a speed of 8,081 miles per hour. For reference, this distance is nearly twice that between the Earth and the Moon.
By comparison, the flight of Apollo 11 took about as long to get only from the Earth to the Moon. The Roadster is in an orbit whose aphelion (farthest point) from the Sun is approximately 1.7 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun, and the perihelion (closest point) is about 0.99 of that same distance. Put in miles, this is an orbit between 92 million miles and 158.1 million miles from the sun.
The ability of Elon Musk and his company SpaceX to make space travel relevant to the everyday person is what will propel this next chapter of the Space Race. We even have to redefine the term “Space Race” itself. It is no longer the rivalry between two systems of government, as was the case in the 1960’s heyday between the US and the USSR.
It is now the province of entrepreneurs, dreamers, who want to create and live the vision of a spacefaring human race. And, like anything else that has espoused great technological innovations or inventions, the success was not based on the viability of the science, but on how well this viability could engage the public interest.
The space program in all spacefaring nations started with the government-run programs of the United States and the Soviet Union. The American program featured open source information as a civilian program, where the Soviet program was mostly classified during its run.
To date there have been only three spacefaring nations: The USA, the Russian Federation (like the Soviet Union before it), and the People’s Republic of China. At this time, though, only China and Russia have crewed spaceflight. The USA has been without its own launch vehicle since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
US national interest in the manned space program was at its height during the decade of the 1960’s as the race to the Moon was on. Starting with the first manned lunar flyby in 1968, American astronauts either flew to the moon or landed on it a total of nine times.
The first moon landing was broadcast worldwide, and indeed, caught the attention of the whole world. However, the Apollo program rapidly lost public interest, hence public funding dried up and the program’s originally intended 25 missions was terminated with Apollo 17 in December 1972. Since then not only has Man not gone back to the Moon, a slowly building consensus has progressed saying that the Moon landings never happened. While most people still do not accept such a conspiracy theory, some characteristics that led to its birth were the bane of NASA’s existence, and helped lead to the cancellation of these and further interplanetary exploration:
- Overemphasis on technical jargon – Listening to the discussion of spaceflight and orbital mechanics for many people is very tiresome. The success of Apollo was in the televised broadcasts that showed the astronauts doing things on the Moon, such as jumping, skipping while singing songs, four-wheeling and playing golf. The work of setting up scientific experiments is of interest to the scientist, but Joe Q. Public is easily lost on such discussion.
- Routine without marketing – While early missions in all the US manned programs were of high general interest, once the technology was proven, spaceflight became accepted as “routine.” This is not a bad thing necessarily, because spaceflight should become routine. However, what we really saw was nothing new or interesting, so it became “boring.” The US Space Shuttle program suffered the same fate, with news items only consisting of launches and landings in normal situations, and the terrible tragedies of Challenger and Columbia flights that ended in the loss of all the crew and their spacecrafts.
- Government-led programs create a sense of inaccessibility – During the heyday of the Space Race, every young boy wanted to be an astronaut or a space explorer. Star Trek was the TV program that outlined this vision in the most mainstream and attractive way, by showing that life in space was a life of adventure. While every spaceflight is an adventure in its own way, it is far from the tales of exploring other worlds, and so again, appeal to do more is easily lost.To fly among the stars, one has either had to have a tremendous amount of money to pay a foreign agency, or one has to be trained within the auspices of a government program. While NASA is civilian, the culture of the astronaut is not so.
As we can see, the issues surrounding the success of space travel are not technical, they are psychological and cultural. Space has never been really marketed as the place to be, the place to explore, and the place anyone can go to.
In the recent decade, private enterprise has begun to fill the gap that NASA created when they closed the Space Shuttle program. SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and other companies have all made attempts to raise public interest in the conquest of space, and the biggest selling point up to now has been the idea of the regular civilian being able to take a ride into space.
Virgin Galactic has held the lead in this thus far, but their program is suborbital and still in development. Bigelow has successfully pioneered the idea of inflatable spacecraft in hopes of building a hotel resort in orbit, but the modules, although interesting, appear both boring and potentially dangerous to the psyche, as the notion of floating around in a balloon, which could be easily punctured at any time, is not attractive to most of us.
Oddly enough, one very attractive way to attract interest is through a bit of comedy. Rather than conceal failure in the SpaceX development program, Musk’s company has capitalized on failures as “part of the road to success” as in this video compilation of the development of the now-famous booster flyback and landing capability.
One can see then ,that there are very non-technical approaches for appealing to the psyche, and it appears the Elon Musk and his people have tapped into this for the first time. Sending one of the coolest ever cars into space, a Tesla Roadster, which in its own right is one amazing automobile, with a suited-up astronaut “driving” with the top down and arm on the window, with the Earth visible behind, all shown in full HD… now that is marketing!
The allure of space-set sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek, is not exactly where one is, though space makes a marvelous backdrop. The allure is what we do there, how fast we can go, what good (or bad) we can do along the way. Human beings have creative spirits, and we want to do things when we go places.
Sometimes this has worked out poorly, but most of the time it seems to work out very well. We take pride in the beauty of our cities, our architecture and art forms, we love beauty, style, and yes, in all this is the huge need for knowing how to do it. But the average person in an art museum appreciates fine art because it is beautiful. They are not technophiles into how the painting or artwork was made. They enjoy the result, beauty made accessible to them. In the same manner space exploration can be – and has been made – appealing to the everyman in a way never done before.
It will be of great interest to see what – and who – does the next cool thing in space, and even more, what that action inspires.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.