7 mins read 02 Jun 2020

SpaceX launches humans into space during a difficult time

As the first commercial crewed mission launched American astronauts into orbit from US soil for the first time in 11 years, many fans of space exploration had conflicted feelings. Ph.D. candidate and science communicator Petr Lebedev shares his thoughts on the historic launch in an unprecedented time.

The alarm rings, and I roll out of bed. It's 5 am. I walk over to the kitchen, flip open my laptop, and tune-in to NASA TV. The weather in Florida is better than a few days ago. We are go for launch.

The liquid oxygen boils and white smoke spills out of the rocket. Fire licks the launch pad. The 549 tonnes of metal, steel, and rocket fuel shoots up. There are two astronauts on top of this rocket, and they're on their way to space.

Half of the risk on a long-duration spaceflight occurs within the first 9 minutes. I am tense. Everything is looking good. Nominal is a comforting word to hear.

2 minutes and 38 seconds into the flight, the main engine cuts off. Seconds later, the first stage separates, and starts falling down to earth. A few minutes later, the first stage lands on the drone ship. This always impresses me. It is an amazing demonstration of humanity's engineering prowess. At 12 minutes and 8 seconds, the second stage separates from the crew capsule. The astronauts are in orbit. They're on the way to the ISS. All is well.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon craft lifting off from Cape Canaveral atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX.

Except I know that all is not well. The spaceship is fine. The rest of the world is not.

It's hard to be unapologetically enthusiastic about a rocket launch when the country it is launching from is tearing itself apart.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a rocket launch when People of Colour (PoC) are murdered by the police and nothing is being done about it. When protesters and journalists are being arrested, tear-gassed, and shot with rubber bullets.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a rocket launch when we are in the middle of a global pandemic. When more than 100 thousand people have died from the virus in the United States alone, and the billionaire CEO of the company that launched this rocket downplays the risks of COVID19.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about this rocket launch. There is just so much human suffering around.

There are many firsts about this launch; first crewed commercial rocket launch, the first crewed launch with a reusable first stage, the first time American astronauts launched from American soil, on an American rocket since 2011. This talking point gets a lot of attention - the social media hashtag is #LaunchAmerica.

Even the launchpad is historic - the Apollo missions launched from Pad 39A. Like crew-dragon demo 2, Apollo 8 took off from pad 39A.

1968 was a rough year - it was the height of the Vietnam war, Martin Luther King was assassinated, there were protests and riots, horrible racism, and police brutality. Yet, during such an ugly and scarring time, I’m sure there were moments of beauty. Art was made. Poetry was written. People fell in love. Hendrix released Electric Ladyland, the Beatles released the White Album. Ursula Le Guin published “A Wizard of Earthsea” and Philip K. Dick wrote “Do Androids Dream of Robotic Sheep?”. Apollo 8 flew 3 humans to the moon.

To my eyes, Apollo 8 is beautiful. A triumph of engineering, human grit, and perseverance. 400000 people worked on the Apollo project. Their hands, and brains, and brilliance took humans to the moon. From the parachute folders to the software engineers, to the hidden figures who calculated the orbital trajectories, this was an example of hundreds of thousands of humans all working together to reach an impossible goal. Apollo 8 was impossible, but it happened. Three humans orbited the moon, saw the far side of our celestial neighbour for the first time, took photos of the lunar surface, and also of the Earth.

Earthrise - captured by the Apollo 8 crew (William Anders). Credit: NASA/Goddard Flight Centre.

This is Earthrise. This picture means so much, to millions of people around the world. One of my favourite photographers, Galen Rowell said that it is "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken". It’s the background picture on my computer, and on my phone. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of our place in space. I am reminded of the fragile, delicate beauty of our world. Our home, our blue marble, set against the inky blackness of space. An oasis. A place to cherish, and protect. A pale blue dot, in the vast, cold, terrifying vacuum of space.

We must look after each other. We must look after our home. No one else will.

I like to pretend that the Apollo missions were funded because of science, because of adventure, because of how our souls start to stir when we think about exploring the universe. They were not. They were funded because the USA wanted to beat the USSR in space. The Apollo missions were a display of technical and military prowess. Yet out of the ugly and dangerous competition between the two superpowers came something remarkable. The space race accomplished incredible scientific objectives, taught us so much about our solar system, and inspired millions and millions of people.

A series of missions that gave us Earthrise.

At it’s best, space exploration is beautiful, freeing, and inspiring. Apollo, Venera, Voyager, New Horizons, Hayabusa-2, Cassini, Rosetta, and countless others are all incredible missions. They have taught us so much about our universe, and constantly remind us about our fragility and cosmic insignificance. It’s important, and it’s inspiring.

At worst, space exploration is petty, nationalistic, militaristic. It’s also exclusionary (out of 560+ people who have flown in space, only 65 are women, and even fewer are PoC). The launch of two white astronauts, by a private company with a billionaire CEO, makes the racial, societal, and economic disparities so painfully obvious. A president gushing about American astronauts, and American rockets, make the nationalistic side of this painfully obvious. I find it hard to stomach.

2020 is an incredibly tough year. We need to be better. We need to stand against racism, sexism, and discrimination of every kind. We need to not only acknowledge that these systemic biases and injustices exist but do everything we can to fix them. We need to make the world a fairer, better place. We also need to take care of our planet - the only home we have. 

While I couldn’t be unapologetically excited about this rocket launch, I’m still hopeful. I still know that investing in space exploration and science is a worthwhile thing to do, both for the economy, and more importantly, for the human spirit. I just want the earth and space to be a fairer and better place for all of us. We need to realise that our differences are so much smaller than our similarities. We need to get a lot kinder, and a lot wiser, quick. As Carl Sagan once, perhaps over-optimistically, said “If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars”. We better not destroy ourselves.

The only way through all of this is together.

Petr Lebedev

Petr is a Ph.D. candidate in physics education research and science communicator. When he’s not writing his thesis or talking about science, he dabbles in rock climbing, playing guitar, and astrophotography.