On Site for Falcon Heavy

Apologies for the late entry, all. I’m on site at Kennedy Space Center for the February 6 launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. My pre-launch article is already live on Spaceflight Insider and I’ll be writing the post-launch article once the launch has gone off. I know, I lean heavily on the space stuff on this blog–that’s why I got into technical writing in the first place–but bear with me if I share a few thoughts about why I love space exploration and rocket launches in general.

Why Space?

Yes, I’ll freely admit that I got into space exploration as an avocation through Star Wars, Star Trek, and various science fiction adventures. However, once I got into the space advocacy community, I started to see space as more than just a setting for adventures and more as an arena for human advancement and achievement.

As some advocates like to say, “Anything we do on Earth we can do in space,” meaning that if we seriously want to expand human civilization to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, or beyond, anyone with careers, hobbies, or interests based here could perform those activities on another world. We will not create civilization from whole cloth out there on “the final frontier,” we will take our lives, histories, and activities with us. Mind you, it will be some time before there’s a society beyond Earth that is rich enough that it can afford a luxury like a technical writer to live there full time. So in the meantime, I’ll be writing about space activities here on Earth.

Space itself is a hostile place. If the place isn’t an utter vacuum, it’s got an atmosphere that’s poisonous, negligible, or super pressurized. Just to get out there requires incredible energies, high-strength materials, and precise electronics that can survive the violence of liftoff and the air-free, high-radiation environment. We have to carry a little bit of Earth with us to survive–air, water, food, clothing, shelter–and even then the longest-lasting space mission for a single person is 438 days. Much like Antarctica or the deep sea, we are merely visitors still, not residents…so far.

But there is also beauty out there. One of the reasons we keep the Hubble Space Telescope flying is to keep providing us with magnificent images of distant objects in our universe. And we have strange and mysterious landscapes closer to home in our own solar system. You could make a case for space on aesthetic grounds alone, though I don’t recommend doing so with your local elected representative.

Life also might exist out there–that is worth investigating, and we are–or it might not. Though as a character in Contact pointed out, that seems like an awful waste of space. And if life does not exist out there, mightn’t we go ourselves? There is some debate on this, but if you had to research and give a presentation on asteroids, as I did once, you know that all it would take is one really big rock to consign us to the fossil record with the dinosaurs. Perhaps it’s worth looking for alternate homes just in case.

More to the point, extending human civilization into space is a cultural and philosophical expression of our willingness to challenge ourselves and to use our minds to solve complex problems. A society that builds cities on the Moon or Mars or mines asteroids requires an educated population, capable of coping with complex challenges in an unforgiving environment. Space exploration and settlement are incredibly difficult. To succeed would be to commit ourselves to be smart and brave enough to do difficult things and humble enough to admit that we don’t know everything and will continue to learn more.

Why should we care about this launch?

Why should this launch or any other matter to the average citizen? SpaceX is a private company, founded and owned by internet, electric car, and solar power entrepreneur Elon Musk. It’s not a public project, though the company is building rockets that provide cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and eventually will launch astronauts. ISS is a National Laboratory for the U.S., and so is a public investment.

The rocket SpaceX is using to support ISS is Falcon 9. The Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled to launch for the first time tomorrow, comprises three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together with a regular Falcon 9 upper stage on top. At its maximum capacity, it could lift 140,660 pounds (63,000 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit, 15,432 pounds (7,000 kg) less than NASA’s Space Launch System, which is scheduled to fly for the first time in 2020.

Okay, that’s a lot of numbers–so what? Well, the more stuff you can carry to orbit, the more things you can do, whether you’re talking an Earth observation satellite or a mission to the Moon or Mars. And while SpaceX has gotten development funding from NASA, this is an in-house design–the biggest commercial rocket ever built. So that’s where we get right down to why space activities can be exciting: It’s an opportunity to be first.

That “first” could be anything, from being the first company to launch a super-heavy-lift rocket to being the first to launch a sports car out toward Mars. And Mr. Musk is keen on the idea of building a city on Mars. The 1960s were an exciting time for space exploration because there were so many firsts–first man in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk, first man on the Moon–and other decades afterward saw the first spacecraft to visit Mars, the first to visit the outer planets, and so forth. Given the size of the universe, we’re still in the beginning phases if we want to “see it all,” but it’s an exciting time to be watching the space business, as private individuals are willing to invest their private funds to build the hardware to go where only governments had gone before.

There is some competitiveness in such things–Mr. Musk is not the only billionaire putting money into space–so that’s an emotional appeal we all can understand. There is whimsy to be enjoyed (“He’s launching what into space?”). And there is just the exhilaration of seeing something difficult done for the first time. It’s witnessing history, and it’s worth taking the time to enjoy.

So today and tomorrow I will be part of 500 or so journalists and photographers coming to Kennedy Space Center to be witnesses to the first (hopefully successful) flight of a new and massive rocket. That’s worth taking the time.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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