Not long ago I, toured the National Air and Space Museum’s immense Steven F. Udvar Center, located near Dulles airport. It’s an amazing complex, but about halfway through I found myself getting strangely depressed.
Most museums are fascinating not just because of the historical information they convey, but because they plainly demonstrate how far we humans have come. Imagine, for example, a museum of the telephone where the exhibits progress slowly from the crudest possible voice-communication devices to smartphones that provide us with instant access to much of humanity’s accumulated knowledge.
That’s how most museums work, but the Udvar Center in some ways does the opposite: It seems designed to argue that there was a time when we dreamed bigger and flew higher, faster, and farther. A time when Americans lifted their eyes to the heavens, said, “We must go there,” and unleashed an enormous amount of raw human energy to get it done, no matter that it had never even been dreamt of before.
It’s all there, right in front of you: A Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (first flight, 1964), the Concorde (first flight, 1969), the Space Shuttle Discovery (first flight, 1981). There was a time when American pilots flew higher and faster than any men before. There was a time when travelers careened across the Atlantic at supersonic speed. There was a time when America operated actual spaceships. And that time has passed.
Of course, our technology has progressed. If we chose to, we could do more. Our computing power is extraordinary. Our technical knowledge is unparalleled. An F-22 is a breathtaking aircraft. A Boeing Dreamliner is a technological marvel — but it still sends you across the Atlantic in the same coach seat at roughly the same speed as passengers of past generations. And space travel? We delegate our manned launches to the Russians, now.
At a time when we could have done more, in many ways we chose to do less. When we could have expanded our reach, we chose to shrink it. Our eyes weren’t cast up to the heavens but down to our phones. And, quite frankly, we lost something in that moment. It would be too much to call it a shared purpose, because national purpose is too complex to be boiled down to a space program. It’s more accurate to say that when we lost that shared purpose — and part of our patriotic pride — the manned space program became all the more difficult to sustain.
What is the thing that we’re proud of today? It should probably be American technology, which is more powerful and influential than it’s ever been. But Google, Facebook, and Twitter don’t exactly inspire patriotic thoughts. They’re more likely to incite partisan rage.
So I am happy to report that something surprising happened earlier this week, something to be proud of: With an inimitable mix of new-school technology and old-school spunk, we launched the world’s most powerful rocket, and Americans cheered — by the tens of millions. Elon Musks’s Falcon Heavy had a moment.
With an inimitable mix of new-school technology and old-school spunk, we launched the world’s most powerful rocket, and Americans cheered — by the tens of millions.
And it was a crazy, classic, modern American moment. Musk launched the world’s most powerful rocket, he put a car in it with a fake astronaut behind the wheel just because he could, and then beamed pictures live back from space. Just one of the Falcon Heavy launch videos has 15 million views on YouTube. Multiple news channels recorded millions of additional views. Some space enthusiasts were moved to tears. Even days after the launch, at any given moment thousands of Americans are tuning into the live “Starman” YouTube feed to watch Musk’s car fly toward an asteroid belt.
I knew the launch was happening, tuned in to watch, and found myself thrilled in a way that I didn’t expect. Minutes later, old friends were sending messages with clips and memes from the launch.
Why? Part of it is simple: Big rockets are really cool, and it had been a while since we’d launched one of that size and power from American soil. But there was something else to it, too, I think. Falcon Heavy, the private (subsidized) product of a man the Washington Post called a “puckish and eccentric billionaire,” sent a powerful message to the rest of the world: We’re back. We can still look up to the heavens. We can still fly farther, higher, and faster.
We’re not all the way back, of course. Our grandfathers and fathers still put us to shame. But there’s hope. More rockets are in the works, including NASA’s Space Launch System, a rocket that could double Falcon Heavy’s thrust and payload. Perhaps we’re learning our lesson: Great nations need great accomplishments. It’s not enough to spend our resources making our lives easier and more convenient. We can still explore. The pioneer spirit still exists, and even if we won’t ever sit atop a rocket of that size and power, we can cheer those who do.
So thanks, Falcon Heavy. In a moment that combined power, grace, and a dash of fun, you helped to make America great again.