Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Here There Be Dragons

At about a quarter to 4 in the morning, while I stood outside in my front yard, in my untied sneakers and bathrobe half asleep, the sky lit up on the eastern horizon as the Falcon 9 with the Dragon capsule lifted from Canaveral on its voyage into space and to the ISS. I came quickly to full wakefulness as the horizon brightend, standing and savoring this moment in history. I hadn't felt this excited about any launch since Apollo 11, when I was 15.

It's going to be a little while yet before the Dragon docks with the ISS. During that period the spacecraft will go through a complete checkout of its flight systems while on orbit before it's allowed to get close enough to dock. Even if it doesn't get that far, the launch of the Dragon is non-the-less one of the most important events in space history because it was conceived of, funded and built by a private company, SpaceX, and for a fraction of the cost that the conventional aerospace companies would have charged. It's a shame that the man-rated version wasn't ready for crew ferrying when the Shuttles were retired and sent to museums, but it will be soon enough. It's better late than never.

Elon Musk, SpaceX, and the Dragon have given something back to me I haven't had in a good long while: hope. Real hope for the future. I grew up believing that hope for us all lay in space, among the planets and eventually out to the stars. The space program was in full swing while I was in elementary and high school while growing up in Atlanta. The space program was a real inspiration for a too-tall and too-skinny geek with coke-bottle-bottom glasses. I had all the Life books on space and all the space models from Revell and Monogram and AST. I'd seen all the Really Cool movies ("The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Forbidden Planet") so many times I'd memorized the scripts. I did the same thing with the first two seasons of the Star Trek episodes (I came to despise season 3). I shoe-horned in episodes of the Outer Limits, especially "The Inheritors."

I still remember the key plot from "The Inheritors": four ordinary soldiers fighting in Korea were all shot in the head with bullets made from a meteorite. The meteorite was special; it contained outer-space material that enhanced all four men's intellects, and gave them paranormal powers to control others. Their mission was to build a starship. One of the four, Lt. Minns, became the group's leader. He was also the money man. In the story he traveled to Wall Street and with his enhanced understanding of finances managed to quickly parley a small amount of money into a fairly sizable fortune, which he divided among the other three men to fund the building of the starship. All of them are building a starship which eventually took a small group of handicapped children as well as themselves to a new world, a world where the children are no longer handicapped and he men will be accepted for what they've become. At the episodes denouement we found out that the special meteorite was sent out by an advance but dying race to find a newer, younger race to come back and inherit what the dying race was leaving behind.

In hindsight there are some interesting parallels with that 1964 two-parter and SpaceX. In SpaceX's case, it was Elon Musk who made a large amount of money on via Wall Street through his development of PayPal and subsequent sale of it to eBay. Musk then used a portion of that to create SpaceX, the corporate vehicle with which to create the Falcon rockets and the Dragon capsules. Elon Musk may not be building a starship, but he's building something more important, the foundation for future rocket travel within our own solar system. Elon Musk is as intensely dedicated to the success of SpaceX and the Falcon as the make-believe Lt. Minns was to building his starship.

The flight of the Falcon and Dragon has rekindled a bright enthusiasm towards space that had all but completely gone out. I never really liked what Nixon did to the space shuttle, and I never really liked Nasa's stewardship of manned space flight after Apollo. Elon Musk and SpaceX are different; they're like the stories from science fiction where the heroic investors and engineers built rockets by their own wits and with their own resources and flew them into space. I'm so excited by what I saw and what I felt again. I'm pulling for the success of the Dragon and the continued success of SpaceX.

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