What a week in space.
It began of course, with SpaceX launching a Dragon spacecraft to ISS for the 9th time, and landing a Falcon 9 first stage at Cape Canaveral for only the second time. It also featured a speech and curious non-endorsement by former astronaut and first female Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins at the Republican National Convention. Along the way, we also celebrated the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, and 40th anniversary of the Viking 1 landing on Mars.
And oh yes, there was a full moon as well. And while that is hardly an unusual occurrence, taking place as it did as SpaceX was making history and one of the nation’s two major political parties was looking back at it (Ted Cruz mentioned Apollo in his now infamous non-endorsement as well) Earth’s natural satellite almost seemed to be mocking the nation that for a brief moment in time, dared to go there.
Standing on the NASA causeway waiting for the Falcon 9 to re-light its center Merlin main engine for the landing burn, I stared at the still waxing Moon and wondered for a moment if we weren’t missing something obvious. Thanks to SpaceX and to NASA, including even the advent of SLS, the Moon is tangibly more accessible than at any point since the Saturn V line was shut down.
Yes we all want to go Mars. In fact we can’t wait to go to Mars. But even when taking Elon Musk’s optimistic timelines into account, we will all have to wait a while longer.
Meanwhile the Moon is still there, and quite frankly, President Obama erred badly when he dismissed not only the way NASA was planning to go to the Moon in 2009 (which deserved the drubbing) but critically, the entire idea of returning to Luna in the first place.
And then the means (figuratively speaking) lit up the night sky and descended to its landing pad at Cape Canaveral on a pillar of fire which would have made Robert Heinlein’s chest swell with pride not just in the nation, but in the human race. With Mars, by NASA’s own schedule more than 20 years off, why isn’t the space agency turning its attention, and its big rocket, towards the lunar surface while finding some way to also take maximum advantage of the wonderful gift SpaceX has placed in its hands?
There are answers of course. The over-sized, over-weight, and incomprehensibly expensive Orion spacecraft to which SLS is wedded may be big part of it. The rocket itself at least offers a unique capability, even if it is a very poor dollar buy compared to the Falcon Heavy which will launch from the same pad Apollo 11 departed on its way into history. It is difficult to same the same for Orion. Given the opportunity, would NASA give up Orion if it could keep SLS and regain the Moon? Who knows.
For all that, the line which resonated most deeply this week came from Elon Musk’s friend and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, who lamenting America’s foreign policy decisions in his speech to the RNC, said “Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East.”
There it was again, Mars, always calling.
Thiel was speaking, for the most part, figuratively, but regardless of your politics or your priorities, it seemed to bring back into focus the idea that for a nation which still leads the world in space exploration, we could be doing so much more, if only the pieces on the board were arranged in the correct order.