A Tale of Two Spaceships
My kids are fond of rocket launches. So am I. I am a space child, born just a few months before Apollo 11 took the first Earthlings to set foot on the Moon. My parents read poems from A Space Child’s Mother Goose to me as I do to my kids now too. I want their dreams to be inhabited by images of humans traversing space, settling its far reaches, exploring Saturn’s rings, and dining in Moon hotels for anniversaries and other special occasions.
My kids and I watch each new spaceship flight. We cheered on the recent test of the Starship, SpaceX’s interplanetary-class spaceship. It’s a beautiful machine, really. All gleaming stainless steel with lines reminiscent of 1950s sci-fi magazine covers, it is intended to carry 100 people at a time to settle Mars. It’s totally insane. Elon Musk’s intention to begin to settle Mars in the next decade is delusional, and those who think they are going to be among the settlers are suicidal. But this grand ambition, this outrageous goal and the gumption involved that has helped spur a new space race with amazing new milestones being met every month, is Scott/Shackleton-level ambition and hubris.
There is so much we don’t know about surviving interplanetary space, and so much left to develop in terms of technical and social solutions to settling outer space and surviving for any length of time, that we should question the ethics of those who send others to almost certain doom, or who choose that fate themselves. In fact, I have questioned those ethics before, in print. If the interplanetary radiation doesn’t kill or disable our intrepid Mars explorers, then the chances of deadly failure of the mission at any point along the way, not to mention the lack of certainty about surviving landing, feeding and providing enough oxygen for settlers, and producing sufficient fuel for return, make planning for any manned mission, much less settlement of the red planet, irresponsible without significant further study in the form of well planned incremental exploration, including numerous unmanned missions in preparation.
None of it is impossible. I know we will do it eventually. It is just going to take us a couple decades more to get enough practice going to Mars and getting back alive before we can settle it successfully. Those first settlements are likely to be quite hazardous, boring, and costly to maintain. We need more of a plan in general for humanity in space before we just start pitching our tents and staking claims where neither water nor air exists.
It wasn’t that Icarus couldn’t have successfully escaped with his father Daedalus. Daedalus, like Shackleton, tested the limits of survival, but never to the breaking point. He even warned his son, but you know how kids are. “Don’t fly too close to the sun” he told the boy, and the rest is poor choices and mythology.
I’m not saying that Elon Musk is Icarus, exactly.
Jeff Bezos was, like other Gen-X geeks (myself included) a big Star Trek geek. He’s clearly the Daedelus of our current space drama. Methodical, incremental, measured, and disciplined. He is charting a course very different from that of SpaceX with his own space company Blue Origin. Musk is space opera. Bezos is hard science in episodic form. Blue Origin’s roadmap so far lacks the “put a million people on Mars” bravado, concentrating instead on steps toward outer space, self sufficiency once there, explorable objects in the near term, establishing and colonizing earth orbit and the moon first. These are realistic, deliverable goals.
Yes it’s flashy and fun to dream big and map out a grand vision for a solar-system wide, inter-global domination, but making and delivering upon achievable, technologically and socially-responsible and ethical plans that don’t risk losing lots of lives has a lot going for it too.
My kids and I watched the Starship S8 launch and we ooohhhed and ahhhed together at the beauty of that gleaming, monstrous beast climbing gingerly to 41,00 feet on three raptor engines (it looked underpowered, as the “landing” soon confirmed), before bellyflopping gracefully until its last minute upright manuever, then rapid retro-firing to slow its descent and land, theoretically. As we know, it came in too fast and did a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly. We gasped at the fiery mayhem, and I had to assure my kids that no actual humans were injured in the course of this movie.
On the other hand, my son and I watched the New Shepard test just weeks after the Starship explosion. Bezos’s incremental approach is paying off. His rocket is no match for Starship in size or sci-fi sensibilities. It looks rather phallic with its pressurized capsule perched upon its tip, ready to take six astronauts at a time, soon, very soon, into space. And this one went to space. it reached 61 miles, just past the 100km limit of space. fully outfitted for spaceflight, the Blue Origin New Shepard capsule, with Manikin Skywalker (so he likes Star Wars too) aboard, proved that they are ready to send humans safely to space and bring them back home. Mind you, SpaceX have done this too, with their Dragon capsule, they have delivered two sets of astronauts to the International Space Station. And while Starship has a Moon rendezvous flight on its timetable, it’s unclear they’ll achieve this on schedule. Blue Origin has a moon lander in the wings, ready to get America back on the moon’s surface in the next few years.
Blue Moon, Bezos’s lunar lander, has already booked paying customers for payload missions, and bid to be a provider for NASA’s Artemis 2024 moon landing mission. I have a lot more confidence in them meeting these achievable goals, from witnessing a rocket that safely landed after a brilliant takeoff and flight to space, than I do in Musk’s ambitious Mars goals coming to frutition any time soon.
There is merit in setting achievable goals, there is virtue in completing a task successfully, there is wisdom in planning grand journeys through a set of achievable steps, to having a roadmap one can follow in good faith, without necessarily shooting for the moon all at once.
But I am glad these companies, and others trailing them, are striving. Icarus is heroic too in his reaching for the deadly and unattainable. Daedelus is hardly remembered, afterall. Maybe Stephen Dedelus is better known for his rambling journey around Dublin than is the Greek tragic hero whose famous son met his doom at the hands of his father’s invention. I hope they both make it, though, and their wings don’t melt, and they fly to freedom in the cosmos where we belong.