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Opinion: Elon Musk and feeling like a kid again

Conor Dillon
February 7, 2018

Not everything went according to plan during SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch yesterday, but in the end it didn't matter.

«Starman» im roten Tesla im All (SpaceX)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/SpaceX

The launch was delayed by an hour and a half. Then it was delayed again. Watching a stationary rocket is an incredibly painful thing. Refreshing a livestream that isn't even live yet, is worse.

Then, finally, the Falcon Heavy was there, all iced up and ready to go.

At T-minus one minute, a roar went up from the SpaceX operations center. The computers had taken over, meaning the launch was now inevitable.

Still, would it actually work? Musk himself was fond of listing all the reasons for why it would explode. Would it?

The crowd counted down, "3, 2, 1."

"Yes!" (It had left the pad.)

"Yes!" (Maximum stress on vehicle reached.)

"Yes!" (Side boosters detached.)

The boosters then flipped and aimed back home for Cape Canaveral. Their camera feeds were crossed, so viewers like me saw the exact same footage on two separate screen panels. This made it look like the boosters were on the same course, meaning they'd land on the same pad and destroy each other.

But in the most striking scene of the entire launch, they didn't.

This was the point that I actually yelled, "F*** yeah!" No matter what else happened, this "mission" was a success. No one had ever landed two boosters before. Now it'd been done.

(Note: It's not only appropriate but maybe even good luck to drop "f bombs" while watching a SpaceX launch, and to understand why, you just have to say "Falcon Heavy" three times fast. If you need more proof, try saying the name of Musk's next rocket out loud, "Big Falcon Rocket." Coincidence? Maybe. But Musk is a smart guy with a boyish sense of humor, and many have wondered whether the name "SpaceX" isn't laced with innuendo.)

Next, all eyes returned to the center core, which had detached and was now on its way down toward a drone ship waiting in the Atlantic, where it was meant to land.

Then it was gone.

The camera had suddenly cut back to the studio at SpaceX, where the two moderators appeared flustered and almost - but then didn't - provide an update on the missing center core.

(At the time of writing, the fate of the center core is still a mystery. But one very unofficial, yet highly entrepreneurial Twitter user is keeping us all posted.)

I actually misunderstood what happened when the cameras then cut to Musk's Tesla Roadster, with "Starman" gripping the wheel and David Bowie's "Space Oddity" filling the airwaves, all mixed with the roars of the crowd at SpaceX. I'd thought the car wouldn't be visible at this point, that it'd be protected and out of view by something called "fairing." But the fairing had dropped away, and there was Starman, cruising along in his space convertible, against views so stunning that people are already having to defend them against claims that they were "faked."

And finally, just hours ago, the latest news from Elon Musk himself. Starman's mission - the dummy was supposed to end up in a "Mars-like orbit" - is actually going to be a failure, even if Musk phrased this new development in positive language:

It's a reminder that there are a lot of questions that need to be answered about the future of private space travel. Should SpaceX have launched a car with a mannequin in it? Is that an OK thing to do? What if it had exploded in Low Earth Orbit and ruined a bunch of satellites or threatened the ISS? Would we feel differently if China, India, Russia or Europe had shot a car up there? And again, what exactly happened to that center core? Where did it go? And why exactly, is Starman headed toward the asteroid belt? (A relevant question for aspiring Mars travelers.)

Soon, we'll find out just how transparent SpaceX will be about its failures - and we should discuss whether it should be even more transparent in the future.

But for now, we should celebrate yesterday's whopping space victory. Want to get kids to study STEM fields? This is how you do it. The Falcon Heavy could have very well exploded, but instead we were treated to a launch that left some viewers in actual tears. A lot of people posted that it was the single most amazing thing they'd ever watched live. Almost everyone agreed that it made them feel like a little kid again. Count me in.