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Falcon Heavy – The Day After

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Well, he did it. Elon Musk launched his huge Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday evening – after multiple delays due to problems with wind (stop sniggering in the back there, I meant wind in the upper atmosphere, not his own, for pity’s sake…!).  Looking back on it this morning it all seems  bit bizarre, and I imagine lots of people are asking themselves this morning “Did I really see that? Did that really happen?” Well, yes, you did, and yes, it did.

Oh, and yes, you really did see a red sports car floating in space, with the Earth shining blue and white behind it. We’ll come back to that…

Falcon Heavy was scheduled to launch at 6.30pm UK time, and following the build-up to the launch through the day on social media, and watching the TV news, felt a bit like the build-up before a big sports event, or even a Royal Wedding, as people arrived at the Cape, set up cameras, got themselves into their viewing positions etc. It was great fun following people on Facebook and Twitter who had gone to watch the launch in Florida, it really felt like I was there with them – when in reality I was sat on my sofa, with different websites open on my laptop and phone while my cat tried to get my attention and I tried also to get some writing done, Talk about multi-tasking…

By 6pm it was obvious that things weren’t going according to plan. The winds in the upper atmosphere were messing about, too strong to permit a launch on time, so the launch was put back to 7pm… then half past seven… then quarter past eight… and by then I was, like many people, really starting to think that a scrub was very likely and they’d have to try again the next day. But then the winds died down, and around a hundred people all Tweeted and posted on Facebook at the same time that Space X had given a GO for launch at 8.45…

Oh boy… they were really going to do it..!

Of course a last minute scrub was still very possible. They happen all the time. A valve gets stuck, a gauge shows a pressure reading that’s too high or too low, and that’s it, a hand slams down on the big red Abort button (not really, but that’s what it feels like) and that’s it, game over, at least for that attempt. But last night the time ticked by, and it all felt… well, destined to come together.

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When the Space X live broadcast started around 8.30 then things got very real very quickly. The video feed showed the Falcon Heavy on the launch pad, looking absolutely beautiful against the perfect blue sky, shining in the Florida sunlight, with steam and gases belching off it. The video feed showed a huge crowd gathered at the Space X HQ, and as every minor or major milestone in the countdown passed it was greeted with whoops and cheers. Eventually there was just a couple of minutes to go, so, as they do, the Space X commentaters stopped yabbering on and we just saw the rocket on the pad, waiting to fly…

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And then up it went, leaping into the sky, a pillar of golden fire trailing behind it. It thundered off the pad, leaving behind great billowing orange, brown and white clouds, and yes, I’ll admit it, I shouted “YES!” and punched the air in celebration. It was a magnificent sight,  one of the most amazing, most moving things I’ve seen in all these years of being “into space”. When that beast of a rocket leapt off the pad it felt like the early Shuttle days, it was that emotional, witnessing such raw power being harnessed and used in that way…

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And then, ridiculously, everything just got better and better. The boosters separated as planned, then pirouetted back towards the space centre as planned , performing a beautiful aerial ballet before landing simultaneously – SIMULTANEOUSLY!!!!

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When the smoke cleared and I saw both boosters standing there on their landing pads, upright, it was like something from a science fiction film…

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Then the cameras cut away to a view of the barge the “core” (middle) stage was due to land on out at sea, and that seemed to be going well, but then the screen filled with brown smoke, hiding everything, and then the video feed cut off altogether. At the time no-one knew what had happened, they thought maybe the booster had landed but in doing so had maybe broken or dislodged the cameras, or the communications dish sending back the pictures. We now know that the core stage missed the barge and hit the water nearby at over 300mph, blowing up and showering the barge with debris, but that’s not a failure in any way; landing on the barge was always going to be a bonus.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. All this happened after what was one of the most memorable moments in spaceflight I’ve ever experienced. Soon after the boosters peeled away, as they started their descent back to Earth, music started playing over the broadcast… “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, and as the sing began it was almost drowned out by the noise of the cheering, screaming and chanting Space X crowd – then we saw why…

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There it was… an insane sight… our first view of Elon Musk’s Tesla, with “Starman” in the driving seat and the achingly-beautiful blue, cloud-dappled Earth far, far below it… 

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I swear that if you listened really, really carefully you could actually hear the sounds of jaws hitting the floor all around the world.

This had divided people before the launch. The whole “put a car in space” thing left as many people thinking it was a stupid, vain thing to do as thought it was a fun, cool thing to do. I was (and still am) firmly in the latter camp, and I was grinning like an absolute idiot at that point, as the car, with its Stig-like mannequin driver, appeared on my screen. As I laughed and laughed, poor Jess was looking at me like I was insane… But at that moment it felt like things had changed. Forget all the waxing lyrical about “destiny” and “opening up the frontier”. History will decide that. What mattered at that moment was that the test flight had worked, brilliantly, and that alone will give the Space X team confidence to push onwards with their even more ambitious plans.

Was it the start of a new age? Not sure about that. But maybe, perhaps, it was our first glimpse of the end of this one…

But the show wasn’t over, because suddenly people on Twitter started to report that Space X was streaming live video from the Tesla. I clicked on the link to the YouTube channel – and there it was, live, real-time video of the car, ruby red against the blackness of space, with the blue and white Earth drifting past behind it… Unbelievable…

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I watched that video feed for the next four hours, just savouring the view. And the view changed. As the car orbited the Earth our planet not only drifted in and out of view, but its size and phase changed too. I took screengrab after sceengrab, hypnotised and delighted by the views, stunned by the sight of the Earth shining through the car’s windscreen or looming above it. Here are some of them…

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And I wasn’t alone. At one point a quarter of a million people were watching that video feed. A quarter of a million.

Of course, not everyone was as enthusiastic. Ok, I get it, I really do. Putting the Tesla on the rocket was an ego trip for Musk, totally, and I can see why that might rub some people up the wrong way. But some people on social media were being so miserable about it, so snarky and dismissive about it that it almost spoiled the moment. This happens a lot with space missions and “events” I have found. There seems to be a group of people who feel they have to talk down the things that people outside the “space community” find cool, interesting or exciting, especially if they’re not involved in them. I don’t think they mean to; I think they have genuine concerns about how some things are done, or how they’re perceived, but they come across as grumpy and a bit selfish. And this happened last night, with people slagging off the Tesla. It didn’t matter that it was simply a beautiful sight, and that a quarter of a million people were watching it instead of watching some stupid talent contest on TV, or the latest Kardashian reality show; it wasn’t doing any science, so it was worthless.

Well, sorry, but I personally think that’s rubbish. Yes, putting a car on a rocket and firing it off into space is, on the face of it, a ridiculous thing to do, a really silly thing to do, but as PR it worked brilliantly, and Twitter and Facebook almost choked with the number of people watching and posting pictures. That has to be a good thing, surely? All those people, seeing their home planet on their computer screens, their tablets or their phones? All those people seeing for themselves how beautiful our planet is, and how lonely and fragile it looks against the blackness of space? How can that be a bad thing?

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And yes, before anyone says anything I know that you can enjoy live views of the Earth from space any time you want by logging on to the feed from the space station. I do that all the time. But last night many people will have seen Earth from space for the FIRST time, so that’s got to be a good thing.

Although it is a fantastic thing to belong to, the space community can be very closed and cliquey sometimes, and last night was one of those times. I wish just once, just *once*, everyone who is “into” this stuff, either as an enthusiastic amateur or a professional who works in the field of space exploration, would put their hands up and say “Ok, I don’t agree with it myself, but yeah, ok, you got me, that’s amazing…”and share in the moment.  I wish the “cool kids” would come out of the kitchen, grab a drink and join in the party, dance with the rest of us out here in the living room where the carpet is rolled up and people are having fun.

Having said that, last night some people went way too far the other way, proclaiming Elon Musk as the new messiah and attacking anyone who dared to criticise him or what he had done. That is totally unacceptable. Everyone should just respect the view of others, debate with them, but stay friendly. There are some truly pompous a***holes out there who take a perverse delight in attacking others.

But back to what last night meant. This launch, and the Tesla payload, got so many people all around the world excited about space again that this morning Twitter is still groaning under the weight of Tweets celebrating the launch, from people who were moved and inspired by it in a way they haven’t been before, or at least since the Shuttle days. Today people are talking enthusiastically about how it’s now not science fiction to think of sending people to the Moon, or Mars, because now there’s a bloody big rocket we can use to make cool stuff like that happen. How can that be a bad thing? Last night, literally, the world was watching, united on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… it was wonderful to be a part of it.

So, what next? Don’t know. Don’t care. Last night we watched magic happen, and in these dark, troubled times, with the threat of nuclear war more real than it has been for years, with a lying childish idiot in the White House, and with the world seemingly going to hell in a hand basket we needed to see that rocket thundering into the sky. We really needed that.

And right now there’s a shiny red sports car on its way into deep space. Yes it’s stupid, and silly, but not everything to do with “space” has to be noble or worthy.

Sometimes, in space as it is down here on Earth, it’s ok to do something a bit daft that makes people smile. 🙂

 

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