Why I’m Glad SpaceX Didn’t Launch Wednesday — and Why it Won’t be Bad if it Doesn’t Happen Today
I’m glad NASA and SpaceX didn’t launch Wednesday. Frankly, a part of me is also hoping they can’t fly this weekend. If you are pro-space, you might be too.
Be it bad weather again, as in Wednesday’s delay, or another challenge, first we must protect the lives of the astronauts. But I am not talking about the safety issues. Rather, I am talking about the history of the moment, and the political future of the cause of opening space. I think the bad weather gave the space program a break Wednesday. It might do so again this weekend. As much as I ache to see it happen, and will be shouting with joy as loud as anyone if it does, it can be argued this is the wrong moment.
If the launch had occurred on schedule Wednesday, followed by a planned Trump speech, the headlines Thursday and forever would have been something like: “On Day When US Corona Death Count Hits One Hundred Thousand Trump Attends Rocket Launch”. This weekend it will be: “US Torn by Protests Over Police Brutality as Trump Celebrates Space Program”. On Wednesday it would have been characterized as one of Trump’s attempts to turn attention away from the pandemic. This weekend it will be discussions of his continuing attempts to distract America from both disasters using space.
Meanwhile, the true historic nature of the first private sector human orbital flight will be lost in the noise. Worse, spokespeople to some of the very constituents we need to support space will point out that while US cities burned Trump was giving a speech about two middle aged white guys flying on a billionaire’s rocket. Of course he will make it even worse, since he will wax poetic about the Artemis Return to the Moon program and Space Force (his speeches are written by professionals). Thus, these other important initiatives may also become collateral damage.
Let me be clear. Trump deserves credit initiating Artemis and Space Force, even if he had nothing to do with the SpaceX launch. But if any of them are to survive a possible change of controlling parties in Washington in January, and keep badly needed public support in the long run, no matter who is in charge, it is important supporters do their best to keep them — and frankly anything to do with opening space — out of the political battlefield.
On the other hand I know some will say that it is exactly the time to show what great things America can do, even when things are their worst. I totally agree. Conceptually. But in reality this is a naïve hope. In today’s world, news coverage is a split screen product, and you can be sure it will be split between the launch and the most controversial lines of his speech and the Americans facing off against soldiers in the streets. Given the abundance of such bad news lately, here may simply be no perfect time for this launch to happen, but perhaps if it is delayed things will be a bit calmer when the next window opens.
We also need to be clear eyed about Trump’s intentions here. He is being criticized by many as having bungled the Covid-19 disaster and his twitter comments about what is happening on the streets. I can guarantee you that in their meetings, he and his people clearly understand they can use the flight as yet another distraction from reality for his base — and he will.
Beyond the flight of the Dragon 2, given the reality of the times, those who believe these other initiatives are also important would do well to not focus on the “who” of their creation but the “why” and “what” in terms of their importance to America and the world. If Trump wins, he will of course continue them as part of his legacy. If not, it is important that as much as possible they be seen as politically neutral, as hard as this may be to accomplish.
When it comes to this launch however, the juxtaposition of the Covid-19 pandemic, riots in the streets, and a president who is clearly and blatantly trying to bury them as lead stories using this moment would be a shame. I worked as part of the team that spent 30 years to create this opportunity to transition away from government owned and operated space station flights. This administration had nothing to do with it, so why let it be dragged into the presidential campaign? This flight isn’t partisan, in fact those who fought hardest to kill the concept were on both sides of the aisle, and we need both sides on our side if we are to succeed.
In practical terms, when it comes to the long arc of history, I believe this first commercial orbital taxi flight will be seen by historians as the moment America began to shift from a government owned and operated space exploration program to one that directly serves the people. Along with the Russians, China, Boeing and soon to be joined by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, we are entering a time when there will be competition for human flights to space, and this means lower costs. Lower costs mean more people can fly, and that means more human minds able to come up with new ways to use space and its resources to benefit the Earth — let alone to look back at our precious world and see for themselves what the Covid virus has already shown us when it comes to borders.
More importantly, remember Elon Musk’s goal — making life multi-planetary. Along with Jeff Bezos and those of us who see opening the solar system as the next step for humanity, this flight and those to come are the opening of the airlock that will usher in a new renaissance.
Wednesday’s number of 100,000 dead Americans was horrifying. This weekend’s riots are horrifying. And while the success of the Dragon is a huge and positive message, this may not be the moment for it. Just look at the papers. Wednesday’s lists of the dead and this weekend’s headlines of cities on fire do not make good page companions for stories of a triumph such as this.
Yes, of course we cannot hide from the fact that America and the world are in the middle of one of our darkest times. And yes, no matter when the launch happens, there will be those on the left who trot out the contrast of doing something great with the great needs we face today. These attacks are inevitable. And generally our answer is simple. It is precisely when we are in such dark times that we need hope. Or, to badly paraphrase the great Oscar Wilde: It is when we are stuck with our feet in the mud that we need to be reaching for the stars. But speaking is not communication. The listener must be able to hear you, and this weekend I am not sure they can.
Of course I will be bludgeoned by those saying you can’t base the timing for launches on current headlines. I get it. Of course not. (Although this has been done in the past.) It should be about physics, not politics. However, we can at least use this moment to hone our awareness of the audience for our messages.
I believe America and the world desperately needs some good news. I believe the flight of the Dragon offers us exactly that. But even as we create the future we must acknowledge today’s reality, and if possible speak into that reality. Were the two people on the rocket of different races or genders it would be a tremendous message. Were the most divisive president in US history not taking the podium immediately after the flight, it could be globally celebrated on its own merits. But we have what we have, and if there is no delay — and even if there is — I simply urge that those who do speak of and report on this event perhaps take a moment and dedicate this flight to those we have lost, point out how we can do amazing things when we work together, and offer it as a beacon of hope to the children of Earth, so that they too can dream of great tomorrows.
Human lives are precious, all of them, black, white, those lost to the virus, and those yet to be born. We are in the middle of multiple tragedies, but we must never forsake our dreams. Giving humanity and life access to the rest of the solar system is critical. We will beat the pandemic. Presidents will come and go. And the political expediencies of the day will indeed shift moment to moment. I also pray to God we will beat the injustice of racism, and it is my goal that as we open the frontier it be left behind on Earth. But the flight of the Dragon is part of and means something far larger than today’s other headlines.
Again, if the mission flies today I will let out a cheer as loud as anyone, and through my tears of joy go to work trying to communicate the incredible importance of the flight to the world. If it doesn’t, I know that it will soon, and while frustrating, it may be for the better. Maybe the weather will do us a favor.