Putting rockets in space used to be a serious business.
According to historian Dr. Christopher Riley, writing for the BBC, "In 1948 the British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle predicted that when spaceflight enabled us to see the whole Earth from space, the view would change us forever."
In 1968 we finally got that photo, taken with 70mm film in a Hasselblad camera by the crew of Apollo 8. It did change us forever, and has been credited with kickstarting the environmental movement. Riley reminds us:
These images, along with hundreds of other still pictures taken of the whole Earth during Apollo's nine flights to the Moon, helped to drive the momentum of a burgeoning green movement during the 1970s. They fuelled an awareness of the vulnerability of the Earth which still resonates with us today and shapes our behavior, as Fred Hoyle predicted it would.
And now we have a Tesla Roadster in space, with Don't Panic on its screen and David Bowie on the radio. Compared to the Apollo 8 crew who sat up there reading us the Book of Genesis, it is all a big joke.
Or is it? Because there are two ways one can look at Elon Musk's launching of his car into space: A really juvenile bit of self-promotion on a par with his Boring Company flamethrower, or the perfect symbol of our age.
I do not understand people who profess concern about global warming cheering privatized rockets— cameron tonkinwise (@camerontw) February 6, 2018
In many ways I stand with Professor Tonkinwise -- that we should fix what we have on Earth instead of burning tons of kerosene to get to Mars; or that the greatest thing about this launch is that we have one less car on earth.
I am complaining about the symbolic economy, of cheering explosive power and speed, irrespective of scale or precision. We need different imaginaries, different pleasures. This is entrenching a tired modernist worldview that we, as a civilization, should have grown out of by now.— cameron tonkinwise (@camerontw) February 7, 2018
Of course, he's right; we do need "different imaginaries, different pleasures." We need bikes, not Teslas; transit, not boring tunnels for cars; trains, not Hyperloops. We don't need flamethrowers and we don't need to go to Mars.
On the other hand, to this child of the space age, the landing of those two boosters was spectacular, the greatest thing I have seen since Apollo 11. And hey, TreeHugger loves recycling. When I was a kid, it was enough to see the grainy images of launches and landings, but those became commonplace long ago. Musk wanted to add some excitement, noting in his post-launch press conference:
“It’s kind of silly and fun,” he said. “But silly and fun things are important. Normally for a new rocket, they’d launch like a block of concrete or something. That’s so boring.” By contrast, the scene of the Tesla in space “is something that’s going to get people excited around the world. It’s still tripping me out.”
Vlad Savov at the Verge captures the zeitgeist:
Without a human element, even the fiery eruptions of a rocket launch can start to feel repetitive, especially in our present age of instant access to the spectacular and otherworldly. So Musk is saying, how about a glossy red electric supercar to reignite imaginations?
On any other day, the choreographed twin rocket landing upon return from the successful Falcon Heavy launch would have been the main event. But then the car came up and everyone was floored. What we witnessed yesterday was the internet generation’s approximation of the moon landing, and that Roadster might well remain the totemic symbol of the achievement.
The whole exercise was a spectacular technological achievement, although I do not know to what end. But we can all use a bit of inspiration these days. What do you think?