Over the past few years, Elon Musk and the folks over at SpaceX have been leading the charge when it comes to commercial space flight. On Wednesday, they’re taking the next big step (or perhaps a giant leap) forward by sending NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule propelled by a Falcon 9 rocket. It’s the first manned mission in the company’s history and the first one on American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle back in 2011.
It’s a huge development for American space travel…but will Americans really care?
While space exploration used to occupy the forefront of peoples’ minds, it has since been shuffled toward the rear, located behind things like reality television, how to cook eggs, and those wind-up monkeys with the cymbals.
I’m not breaking any news here, but the story of how we got to space and the fascination with the topic goes back a long, long way. Fortunately, I can skip a lot of it, because for the first few million years it was nothing but people craning their necks skyward, squinting through telescopes, or occasionally drawing lines between stars and saying they looked like things.
At the turn of the 20th century, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio built an airplane in their spare time and set the field of modern aeronautics in motion. After several years (and a pair of World Wars) the Wright Brothers’ rickety flying contraption had morphed into badass fighter planes. It was at this point that a pair of contenders in the inaugural space race emerged: The U.S. of A and the U of S.S.R.
We all love a good competition and The Space Race offered just that. It’s one of the key reasons that huge public interest in space exploration developed in the first place.
The Space Race started when World War II ended. The United States launched Operation Paperclip, a secret program to bring German scientists to America to gain a military edge over the Soviets. These scientists included Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket team, who had developed the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missiles for the Germans.
Big free agent signings like this helped move the United States space program forward, but it wasn’t quite enough, as the Soviets would launch Sputnik 1 in October of 1957, which became the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. The Soviets would then put the first human being in space when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin propelled himself into the great unknown in Vostok 1.
For a solid chunk of the 20th century, the Soviets were America’s biggest rivals in everything, whether we’re talking about military endeavors, space exploration, or hockey. Losing the first leg of the space race to the Soviets was a gut-punch to the American psyche and enough to get everyone on board with the idea that if we couldn’t beat them to space, we could beat them to the Moon.
These sentiments were echoed by John F. Kennedy during a speech at Rice University in 1962 where he talked about going to the Moon and other things “nawt because they ah easy, but because they ah hahd.”
By the end of the decade, the American flag was planted in the lunar soil, effectively allowing the country to declare victory in the Space Race. Guys with names like Gus, Buzz, and Neil became American heroes and the United States would go on to make semi-regular trips to the Moon for a few years before that somehow became old hat.
This is the part of the story that I can’t understand. For a good part of human history, the Moon was a complete enigma that conjured both wonder and an array of questions like “Where does it go during the day?” and “Who lives there?” and “Is it really made of cheese, and if so, what kind?”
In 1972, the Apollo Program came to an end after a grand total of six missions. Since then, not a single person has set foot on the Moon. Sure, there were new frontiers to conquer, but why not still make the occasional trip back just to see what’s up or maybe hit a bucket of golf balls for fun?
The aforementioned new frontiers we’ve tried to conquer lack the grandeur of visiting the Moon. Space stations are cool, sure, but they’re no Moon (even the Death Star, which was initially mistaken for a moon but was, in fact, no moon).
This caused a major decline in the public’s interest in space exploration, a phenomenon perfectly lampooned by The Simpsons in the season five episode “Deep Space Homer” which features a guest appearance by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who stressed that “Second comes right after first!”
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the American space program was officially a shell of its former self. While NASA astronauts still made their way to space, it was rather ironically accomplished by way of hitching a ride with the Russians that came with a price tag of upwards of $80 million.
Over the last decade or so, private companies led by rich guys like Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson who need something to do with their disgusting amount of money are leading the charge toward reinvigorating the perception of space travel.
The biggest step yet will be Wednesday’s launch and it could very well make people start to care about space again. It’s been long enough since there has been a high-profile manned launch from the United States that it will almost feel like a reboot, which Hollywood has recently taught us people can’t get enough of. Plus, with every mission, we’re closer and closer to being able to send regular (or as regular as you can be if you can afford to buy a ticket to space) people into orbit.
Of course, the thing with the greatest chance of reigniting interest in space exploration will be sending a human to Mars. I think it’s pretty safe to say that when that happens, all of us will huddle around TVs (or phones, tablets, computers, etc.) just like everyone did in 1969.
While we’re still quite a way off from watching an astronaut traverse the Martian landscape, SpaceX’s latest launch is a step in the right direction toward both Mars and making people care about space exploration once again.