‘Mars is looking real,” Elon Musk tweeted on Tuesday evening. “Progress is accelerating.”
Musk has every right to be bullish. At a SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas, on Tuesday night, the Starship prototype Serial Number 5 launched in a brief test flight. The fifth-generation rocket — hopefully the model for the rockets that will one day shuttle people, cargo, and satellites to and from the moon and Mars — rose nearly 500 feet before landing near the launch pad in a controlled descent. It was the first rocket of its kind to successfully launch with full-sized propellant tanks.
Tuesday’s test launch came just two days after the safe return to Earth of the DEMO-2 crew members, who launched on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket back in May. Their mission was a rousing success, and another NASA crew is slated to launch with SpaceX this September. Musk and his company have the capability to ride their recent momentum into the fall, using hard-earned American taxpayer dollars to push the cause of space exploration forward.
Critics might contend that there are far too many problems here on planet Earth — heck, in the United States alone — to devote precious time and resources to that cause.
First and foremost, there’s the coronavirus pandemic. Why bother trying to conquer Mars when our government institutions cannot deliver an effective, non-partisan response to the rapidly spreading disease which has already claimed over 150,000 lives? Socially isolated inside homes and apartments, unemployed Americans face continued lockdowns and economic damage. Families struggle to make ends meet, loved ones pass without proper funerals, and to those suffering from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, the future may look hopeless. The mental-health and opioid crises that existed before the pandemic will almost certainly be much, much worse afterward.
Then, there are the unrest and violence on America’s streets, inflamed by the disease and pundits — from both sides of the aisle — who seek to capitalize on the moment for political gain. What good is imagining a future when Mars is colonized while protesters attack federal property in Portland and violent-crime rates soar in New York? Who cares if astronauts ever set foot on the moon again when citizens are afraid to set foot on a sidewalk in Chicago?
And, of course, there’s November’s presidential election. It might be the most consequential in recent memory. It will certainly be the most divisive. Two less-than-ideal candidates will face off, backed by two rapidly changing, often-hardly recognizable political parties. They’ll do so at a time when many Americans cannot even have an honest discussion about the choice the nation faces, because they feel as if sharing their political views could get them socially ostracized, axed at work, or worse.
So, the question remains: What good can space exploration do at a time like this?
Well, quite a lot, actually. In aiming for Mars, SpaceX and Elon Musk have undertaken a noble and necessary endeavor. Way down the line, when generations of Americans yet to be born look back on this moment, they’ll be seeking some glimpse of hope, some apolitical accomplishment fueled by the ideals this country once upheld: private enterprise, innovation, vision. And in the present, to escape the bleak, polarized moment America faces, we will need those values, which have nothing to do with identity, tribe, the Black Lives Matter movement, or “Owning the libs.” Civilization does not progress when its heirs are bickering about pronouns, Goya beans, and reparations. But when a place as foreign and abstract as Mars is made to seem a little more real — when technology and good old-fashioned human ingenuity accelerate together to expand our sense of what’s possible — the chances of progress are made to seem a little more real, too.