There’s a story in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles called “The Third Expedition” with astronauts landing on Mars. One nice thing about the stories in this book is that they all have dates listed. The first story in the book happens in 1999. This one takes place in April 2000.
(Yes, you might have noticed that I do keep track of dates.)
When the book was republished in 1997, they changed all the dates to thirty years later — as though that would fool anyone.
But it’s not the first time the dates were changed. That story was originally published in 1948 as “Mars Is Heaven!.”
A funny thing about this 1948 version is that Bradbury originally had men landing on Mars, not in 2000, but in 1960.
Where am I going with this?
It’s easy to laugh at thinking we’d be on Mars by 1960 (while weeping that we’re not there yet in 2015). You need to think about what made people so optimistic. When Bradbury wrote that, the U.S. Army was testing V-2s in New Mexico. They also had the Me-163 Komet rocket plane. It must have seemed simple back then to just imagine making them bigger and adding more fuel.
But it wasn’t so simple after all. This is a lot like how military historians say amateurs talk tactics, and professionals study logistics. (Well, amateurs now say that, too.)
Getting into orbit requires an awful lot more fuel. And even that’s not the biggest issue. Multi-stage rockets could get us into space. The biggest issue was cost. It was bad enough that they cost millions of dollars. None of the early SF writers ever imagined that rockets would be single-use vehicles. That makes the cost utterly enormous.
But that’s ending. Monday night’s launch and landing puts us a little bit closer to the possibilities that Bradbury imagined, and that’s a wonderful thing. Elon Musk thinks he’ll get there by the 2030s. I think he’s got a shot.
Night launches are usually great when you’re watching from far away, but the visibility isn’t all that great on the video. There’s a flight test here if you’d like to see one in daylight. But that was just a short hop. What happened today is history.
The success of SpaceX yesterday to vertically land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket while also successfully putting eleven smallsat satellites in orbit however that gives me hope that a dark age is not coming. Despite living in a time when freedom is denigrated, when free speech is squelched, and when oppressive regulation and government control is the answer to every problem, the enduring spirit of the human soul still pushed through to do an amazing thing.
SpaceX’s success is only the beginning. The ability to reuse the engines and first stage will allow them to lower their launch costs significantly, meaning that access to space will now be possible for hundreds if not thousands of new entrepeneurs who previously had ideas about developing the resources of the solar system but could not achieve them because the launch costs were too high. In fact, the launch of Orbcomm’s smallsat constellation by this Falcon 9 demonstrated this. Not only is this company proving the efficiency of smallsats, they now have a launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, that they can afford to use. In the past Orbcomm would have been hard-pressed to finance its satellite constellation using the expensive rockets of older less innovative launch companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
That could sound like he’s making too big a deal of this. But he’s not. (Well, maybe the “dark age” talk was a bit grim, but you really should read the whole thing.) What happened last night is big.
The only caveat I would add is that we still need to see how fast they can get this back up again. People like to talk about aircraft only in terms of performance. Maintenance and turnaround time is essential. But even if Falcon 9 had landed as an unusable wreck, this would still be a milestone. It just wouldn’t be that big of one.
Instapundit Glenn Reynolds links to an NPR commentary on Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration, where NPR’s Ron Elving compares Trump to Father Coughlin, the Depression-era radio host.
Glenn adds that “But to listen to this, you’d think he was a right-winger.”
Having done some research on the subject for my books, I can say that Coughlin is pretty obviously on the other side of the spectrum, and that goes for the sensibilities of both the radio and the internet age.
Here are the Principles of Social Justice from Coughlin’s own Social Justice magazine (October 1937):
Liberty of conscience and education.
Just, living, annual wage.
Nationalization of important public resources.
Private ownership of all other property.
Control of private property for public good.
Abolition of Federal Reserve Banking System and establishment of a government-owned Central Bank.
Restoration to Congress of its sole right to coin and regulate the value of money.
Maintain cost of living on an even keel.
Cost of production plus a fair profit for the farmer.
Labor’s right to organize.
Recall of non-productive bonds.
Abolition of tax-exempt bonds.
Broadened base of taxation on basis of ownership and capacity to pay.
Simplification of government and lower taxes.
Conscription of wealth as well as men in event of war.
Sanctity of human rights preferred to sanctity of property; with government’s chief concern for the poor.