Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the astronauts, will never be household names like Alan Shepard, John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. But they should be, not because they went into space, but because their flight was the start of a public-private partnership that promises to lead to greater innovation and more exciting possibilities than the government ever could conjure on its own. It also was the first U.S. launch of its own astronauts in nine years.
Elon Musk, flamboyant and controversial, is the focus of this flight because he owns SpaceX, but there are several other private spacecraft companies that will continue to compete in this new world.
That competition may not capture the imagination like the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union back in the day. Saturday’s scheduled launch will attempt to replicate something that has been done many times before in other vehicles.
But over the long haul it will cost you a lot less, even if it isn’t a competition for bragging rights between capitalism and communism, at least not directly.
Actually, that aspect was always overhyped. Back in the day, the U.S. space program was just as dependent on the public treasury as was the Soviet program.
As Barry Schwartz of the New York Times wrote in 1969, "The three Apollo astronauts are all government employees, and Neil Armstrong — the first man ever to walk on the moon — belongs to the civil service." NASA's leaders, he said, "are successful bureaucrats, not entrepreneurs in the grand Ford-Rockefeller tradition."
They sure made for good heroes, though.
As a grade school student in Phoenix during the ‘60s, I remember how our teacher would wheel a large black-and-white television set into the room and let us watch the coverage. Whenever the astronauts would pan their camera back toward earth, which bobbed like a ball on a dark carpet, someone would inevitably yell, "Look! I see myself!"
This launch is more of a statement about capitalism than those were, which means, in a way, we really will see ourselves, or at least a piece of our American tradition of entrepreneurship. If all goes well, it could make COVID-19 fall out of view, just for a little while.
I recently found a book I used to leaf through when I was 10, titled simply, “Frontiers of Space.” I remember looking at the colorful photos of the earth from space, then flipping to a section on the future.
“The fruits of orbital research should begin to point towards important commercial dividends by 1980,” it says. The photos showed a vehicle launching from the United States, loaded with passengers, and arriving in Singapore 39 minutes later.
I’m still waiting for that flight.
As I watched the launch get scrubbed Wednesday afternoon, I wondered whether this rocket could make children dream of space again.
The answer is, probably not now. But it may be our best hope that they will again some day.