The sky's the limit for commercial space flight

On Saturday, May 30, American astronauts flew into orbit on an American-made space vehicle for the first time since 2011. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket carried Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both veterans of the old Space Shuttle program, inside the Dragon capsule, and once the capsule separated safely, the first stage returned automatically to earth and landed intact on a barge to be reused.

Meanwhile, the Dragon capsule caught up to the International Space Station (ISS) where the astronauts will stay for the next several months. The return flight in the Dragon capsule is planned to end in the ocean, a mode of re-entry that hasn't been done for over 40 years.

Many news reports remarked on the contrast between the good news of a successful launch and the general tone of recent US news events: the Covid-19 virus and all its consequences, riots over police brutality, and so on. But this is nothing new.

The space race between the US and the USSR over who would get to the moon first was conducted during what was probably the most tumultuous decade in the last half of the twentieth century. The 1960s were not exactly peaceful: the Vietnam War, antiwar protests, race riots, and the sexual revolution are just a few items of turmoil that come to mind. But amid all the strife, America found the will and the capability to land men on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Engineers are not much into symbolism. But space exploration carries a heavy load of symbolism, and it's worthwhile considering what that means in light of the huge effort and expense that sending people into space entails.

In retrospect, the Apollo program was mainly a way to carry on the Cold War by peaceful means. Its extraordinary expense was justified not for scientific reasons, although there was some useful science done. But being the first nation to put men on the moon would show our technological superiority to the world, and in an age dominated by technology, that achievement had implications that everyone understood. It took a couple more decades for the USSR to crumble away, but it did.

Nevertheless, in their rough-and-ready way, the Russians maintained their ability to travel into space despite all kinds of political reverses, and once the Space Shuttle program outlived its usefulness, America turned inward with regard to space and paid taxi fare to the Russians to put people on the International Space Station.

When one asks about the ultimate motivations of the younger generation of space cadets—Elon Musk being their spiritual leader—the answer isn't as clear-cut as it was for my generation. Nationalism pure and simple doesn't seem to be a big factor, although Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, is enough of an American to take pride in the fact that the rocket was made here and launched from here.

To be sure, profit is a motive as well. That's why the fact that SpaceX and not NASA was the builder of the rocket is so significant. It may be the case that SpaceX is a long way from turning a profit with direct commercial space activities, as opposed to government-subsidized projects such as the ISS launches. But with ideas such as asteroid mining around, it may be that some of the next great fortunes may be made in space.

If I had to guess, though, I'd say that the new space explorers see themselves taking part in a long-term project that will end up putting significant numbers of people out in space, in places that will be just as habitable as Earth, if not more so.

Every so often I come across a student who wants to get involved in the space program somehow, and there's often a kind of glitter in their eye when they talk about it. The phrase "manifest destiny" has fallen under a cloud in recent years, as its original meaning that the United States was destined to conquer the whole midsection of the North American continent has been taken to be insensitive to the people (and animals) who were already here.

But presumably, displacing natives is not a big problem in the solar system, at least. And believing that humanity is fated to found colonies on other planets, and perhaps beyond the solar system, seems to be close to an article of faith for many space enthusiasts.

It's interesting that the word "fate" came up in a quote from Musk himself as he commented on the successful launch yesterday. Remarking on the contrast between Saturday's successful launch and the earlier attempts that were scrubbed by weather conditions, he said, "Today, I don't know, it felt like just the fates were aligned."

Without putting undue weight on what may have been just an offhand remark, I think it's interesting that the leader of the company that launched Americans into space for the first time in nearly a decade attributes success to the fates being aligned.

Musk mixed his metaphors, for one thing. The usual phrase is to say that the stars are aligned, which harks back to the time when astrology—forecasting auspicious times and events by observing stars and planets—was every bit as respectable as forecasting the progress of pandemics is today. And the Fates were mythological goddesses who presumably determined one's lifespan and, well, fate in life.

Either way, he was saying that despite all the highly technical and cross-checked planning involved, there is an element in the venture that wasn't under human control. But we don't believe in Fates or astrology anymore, do we?

It depends on what you think life and the world are about. If the most one has to look forward to is playing a brief role on a stage where your only hope of immortality is to make a big splash that will be remembered by future generations, then living a Musk-like life makes some sense, especially if humanity is fated to live among the stars. Then you will be viewed by future generations as a Columbus (if that name isn't too offensive anymore), or someone equally famous for venturing out to discover and eventually populate new worlds.

But if everything we do and are is owing to a supernatural Ground of existence, namely a God who is intensely interested in what we puny humans do, then one has a different perspective on things.

It still may be worthwhile to explore space, and even for some people to live there. But other priorities and other goals may intervene.

Republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics Blog.


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