If you’re a space enthusiast (and pretty much all that read this blog are certainly that), you’re certainly one of those that have enjoyed a very enjoyable week with something new, something we’ve not quite seen before: A maiden launch of a powerful rocket.
New launch vehicles do show up every few years, so that wasn’t the excitement. The anticipation was likely building up because the company that designed this rocket, the Falcon Heavy, showed excitement about its development. People who loved watching its Falcon 9 first stages land back on terra firma were excited. The idea of watching three first stage cores land back to earth was really exciting.
So, on February 6, 2018, SpaceX made a very successful maiden launch of their new heavy-lift vehicle.
Before any of you readers get any ideas about how I lean, for disclosure, this writer was born in 1964, well within the time to appreciate much of the Apollo program, the long dark between that and the Shuttle-era, and the development of the “newspace” launcher era. Let me also note that this is the very first SpaceX-oriented blog article I have ever posted. This is more by design of the blog and Facebook group’s topic focus: Spaceflight Blunders & Greatness is a historical recount. So, often, what SpaceX is doing is a bit too new to discuss in terms of its mark on history.
So what Blue Origin is doing is also too new. And what Rocket Lab is doing may also be too new. And what NASA has planned with the Space Launch System and what Bigelow Aerospace plans to do or ULA plans to do has not happened yet, and so will not be discussed here or on Facebook.
You might see what we’re leading at here.
History is most clear through the lens of time.
It’s been almost 49 years since mankind set foot on the moon. It’s been 45 years since the world’s most powerful heavy-lift launch vehicle flew.
It’s been only three days (at the time of this writing) since the world’s most powerful operational heavy-lift launch vehicle made its first test flight.
But what did this accomplish? Not much in the present, although the quadruple sonic booms of the Falcon Heavy’s two side cores landing back at Cape Canaveral spell a new level of competition in reusable launch vehicles that may save lots of money in the cost of sending payloads into space and cause all competitors of SpaceX to change their business model more rapidly.
Triple-core launch vehicles aren’t new (Titan III, Titan IV, Delta IV Heavy, even STS by technicality). And outside of the Saturn V, there have been two other launch vehicles that had more powerful thrust and payload capacity than the Falcon Heavy.
It’s great to be excited, and it was certainly very, very exciting to witness something new, with also getting a taste of things to come.
But before we all get too excited, let’s recap some other great ideas. Some flew, in part. Other photos existed just as drawings and dreams cancelled or that simply died.
All of these photos represent one thing in common. They were subject to change.
Budgets weren’t there. Practical needs or requirements changed. Politics intervened. Some plans and procedures didn’t ultimately survive first contact with calamity, often with lives lost due to shortsightedness, complacency, even hubris.
The now of our new space ventures is awesome.
But time unforgivingly strips away the veneer, the pomp and circumstance, the hype, the promised goals, the wow-factor of technology. History is a crucible where all of that momentary excitement and pageantry is burned away, leaving the real stuff.
Apollo, Mercury, Gemini and most of the Shuttle era has had time to burn away all of the subjectivity to show the good, the bad, the funny and sad, as well as the tragic for all to read.
Thankfully, we humans, being temporal creatures, can appreciate what has happened now with the same joy as what happens in the present–if we choose to do that.
Spaceflight Blunders & Greatness tries to dig out what’s left in the crucible for others to see. Some fails are most epic, even funny in hindsight. Other failures are so well discussed elsewhere and/or are so terrible that this blog may never write much about them. And even some incredible achievements are so well-documented that it’ll be an injustice for SB&G to even attempt to write its own piece about them.
Perhaps, if the blog and the group are still going in 10 years, they’ll be some nice articles about SpaceX here and others in this new era of spaceflight.
Excitement, for all its adrenaline-pumping worth, isn’t news, nor does excitement equal outright accomplishment. The Falcon Heavy hasn’t flown a notable payload yet. Other competitors have yet to show up. For a private space launch company to make a rocket that’s number 4 in the all-time heavy lifter category is really impressive.
Still, it’s way too early to make claims on what SpaceX or others have done and will do with their vehicles.
We’ve still not matched our best manned spaceflight accomplishment, pound per pound.
Apollo remains the standard of greatness. This project signified the moment where America spent money as if at war and flexed its muscles in a peaceful action like no other time in human history.
There have been high-water marks since, such as with the assembly of the International Space Station, with the Space Shuttle and their crews finally showing all it was fully realized to be, and doing it well.
But landing men on the moon? That’s still a rarity of achievement. Landing any spacecraft anywhere, manned or not, is still praise-worthy because it it so damned difficult. Just ask the Russians about their troubles in getting anything to Mars, although, curiously, they are the only nation to place soft-landed probes (deliberately) on the surface of one of the most inhospitable planets: Venus.
Launching a rocket alone is not that significant. Thousands of orbital rockets have flown, many as powerful as Falcon Heavy. Soft-landing boosters from that rocket is certainly significant, but we won’t see how this affects space travel for some time yet.
Let’s enjoy these new moments. Let us neither hold on to the past too strongly that the new moment is dulled and jaded to us, but let us not forget that those rise today do so because they stood, and continue to stand, on the shoulders of giants.