In a brilliant flash of the entrepreneurial spirit, a Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off last week from Launch Pad 39A at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
NASA had launched rockets bound for the moon from that pad. But this time, NASA had no role. Rather, a private company named SpaceX, founded and run by the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, was behind the mission.
And he gave everyone a laugh.
The Falcon Heavy, which can carry up to 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into orbit, transported a red Tesla Roadster and a mannequin wearing a SpaceX spacesuit into deep space. This unique duo is expected now to orbit the sun for hundreds of millions of years. "It's kind of silly and fun," Musk told The New York Times, "but silly and fun things are important." Indeed, they are.
Video of the mannequin in the driver's seat (with the phrase "Don't Panic" on the dashboard, a clever wink to Douglas Adams' cult classic "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") was transmitted back to Earth as it went through the radiation belt. Within seven hours, Musk tweeted: "Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt."
In fact, the whole launch was nearly flawless. The two side rocket boosters returned themselves to the launch pad in perfect working order. Unfortunately, the center booster, which was supposed to land on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean, ended up in the drink.
But it gives something for SpaceX to work on and improve before the next launch. It also gives Musk confidence that his next major project will be ready for a Mars excursion sometime after the year 2020.
Musk, an engineer who is the CEO and co-founder of Tesla Inc., started Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, in 2002. He worked with NASA's Commercial Crew Program to develop the Dragon 2 spacecraft, which he hopes will one day take people to the moon.
Musk's ultimate goal has been to make space travel more affordable and accessible. He even went as far to suggest in 2011 that he hoped to send humans to Mars in 10 to 20 years.
Critics have mocked him and said what he was doing was impossible. But Musk's success has been attributed to his ability to feed off this constant negativity about his various inventions — and then make the impossible seem possible.
It is exciting to come closer to private space flight. The cost will likely be prohibitive at first, but as capitalism has amply demonstrated, innovation and the desire for riches have a way of cutting costs and working technological miracles. The opportunity to see (and possibly colonize) different planets may finally be in our sights.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD