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(CNN)The new Space Age began Tuesday, even though so much of it felt like the old one — in a good way.
Once the massive rocket sprinted off historic launchpad 39A about 3:45 p.m., everything seemed to go off as planned, from the activation of David Bowie’s music as soundtrack to the pinpoint return of two reusable booster rockets to separate platforms on the ground.
Let us elaborate: The boosters fired retro rockets, unfolded their landing gear and touched down like helicopters.
As we say: This is a new Space Age.
What felt familiar, however, was the breathtaking and (literally) earthshaking excitement of watching a massive man-made launch vehicle destined to push something man-made farther than anyone can now imagine. The only thing that could have stoked the emotions harder was knowing there was a human being aboard.
There wasn’t. There was a red Tesla Roadster with a dummy in a space suit behind the wheel. That’s “dummy” as in mannequin, not a figure of speech or a joke.
Yes, there were elements of big-tent entertainment and hoopla to Tuesday’s test launch, right down to the Bowie music (“Life on Mars”? of course). But admit it. Hype was the booster engine that drove the mid-20th century space race. Hype. All those solemn words asserting the importance of American democratic purpose and know-how triumphing over what was then perceived as “dark” Soviet machinations toward global domination.
Sounds silly now, somewhat. But at the time, it got everybody’s blood pumping, inspired generations of schoolchildren throughout the world to dream big and aim high, though there were just as many people complaining about the cost to the taxpayer.
Speaking of which, where’s NASA in all this, you might wonder? It’s building its own version of a heavy booster, the Space Launch System, that’s expected to send humankind back to the moon and then beyond. The earliest that’s expected to be ready for test launching is 2020. Nothing is assured in life, or in space.
So if there’s a “space race” now, it may well be between private enterprise with its resources and government programs with their history of expertise. The guess here is that there won’t be a winner in the race so much as an unwieldy mix of competitors for, if you will, space. Is this how space exploration goes on now for the foreseeable future?
“Forever” is a long time, especially in the future. But something about this new Space Age and its myriad players comes across as not only familiar, but inevitable. Whether we’ve chosen to acknowledge it or not, we’ve been heading for this moment, probably as far back as the 1960s, when thoughtful people were wondering, even in the blush of government-subsidized space spectaculars, if all this effort is worth it.
Well, IS it worth it? We won’t know until we try. Musk will likely tell you that, and so will NASA. It’s not the most detailed or satisfying answer. But until a better one occurs, sit back and enjoy the show.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly characterized SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket as bigger and more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that carried men to the moon a half-century ago. It is not; it is more powerful than any rocket in use today. Its payload is intended to fly near Mars one day.
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