When I watched the video of the successful landing, after deploying eleven satellites, of the Space Exploration Systems Corp. Falcon 9 first stage booster the other day, I teared up, which I also did when I watched the successful landing of the Curiosity Mars Rover. Why? Granted they were both incredible technological successes, but for me there was more.
I worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena CA part time in 1960 and 1961, and then full time until 1966, when I joined the Stanford faculty. It was a wonderful time to be there, as the U.S. was in the “space race” with the Soviet Union, NASA had taken over the lab from the army (although it is managed by Caltech), the military had built the necessary booster rockets, such things as solid state electronic circuitry and computers were available. Despite the Cold War, it was also a happy time in the U.S., as far as confidence and the economy were concerned, and a comparatively innocent one, since the U.S. was still in its post World War II victory mood (despite the Korean War), and not yet facing the many large problems at home and in the world that bombard us from all directions.
In 1960, when I arrived, the Lab employed about 2000 extremely competent people and built its products internally, as it had learned to do while developing rockets for the army. It was then working on the Ranger spacecraft to the moon, which was to accomplish a number of missions having to do with learning more about getting there, and its nature. I joined the people in the Lab who were thinking about exploring the planets and other bodies much further from Earth. In those days, many unprecedented problems needed to be solved, and the Ranger project, in which the first six missions failed for various reasons, was the big learning experience, which resulted in much technology and understanding used in following missions. The first launch was in August of 1961, the first successful one in July of 1964 (the photographs of the approach to impact that flooded every TV screen in the country), and the final one in November of 1964. Although I was primarily involved with the first Venus and Mars flyby spacecraft (Mariner 2 and 4 were highly successful, 1 and 3 failed, so we were better, but still learning), The various technical groups had continual contact with each other, so we planetary folk were very aware of what the lunar people were doing, and took as much advantage as we could of what they had learned and designed and built.
I worked on various temperature control and structural problems for the Venus shot but was on the preliminary design team through design, fabrication, and mission control for the Mariner Mars — probably the high spot of my time working on aerospace projects. At the time I was at JPL, the work was not only technically extremely challenging, but a bit romantic, since traveling in space has always had a certain cachet, and we did not yet know that the other moons and planets were as barren as they turned out to be. People still believed in canals on Mars, and at least some form of life. Also, through the Ranger failures, we had learned the difficulty of designing very complex and necessarily light weight, and therefore somewhat fragile equipment that could survive the launch environment and was extremely reliable from launch to the end of its mission. I will not try to describe the feeling when these spacecraft, which represented years of hard and challenging work, succeeded in their mission. One reason I cannot capture it, is when one works on a complicated system involving many disciplines, goals, and processes, one becomes increasingly aware of how many things can go wrong. Also, at the time I was at JPL, spacecraft were attracting an amazing amount of attention in the world, and failures were not accepted by those not involved in designing, making, and flying them. The failure of the first six Rangers earned a Congressional Investigation for JPL, which was no fun at all.
So I teared up upon watching the Falcon 9 landing and the people who made it cheering on my TV because it stirred up feelings I had over 50 years ago. I managed R&D groups, was involved in feasibility studies for future projects such as the Voyager series, and did other overall jobs at JPL, but nothing came close to the feelings of being an anonymous part of a larger group successfully completing a difficult project that they considered significant.
Kudos to Elon Musk. He is definitely carrying out his goal of making a difference. My son Dan was an early engineering employee at Tesla and worked there until very recently, at which point he resigned and joined a start up. He had a wonderful run at Tesla, and I imagine quit because he does prefer smaller companies. He joined Tesla because he is very conscious of the environment, and Tesla’s goal was (and is) to demonstrate the feasibility of electric cars. They certainly have accomplished that goal. Next year a whole series of electric cars will hit the road from other companies.
But Tesla, and now Space X, whose goal was to get the private sector involved in space travel? Is Musk for real? Perhaps he is a more highly developed life form. He speaks often of wanting to build a city on Mars, die on Mars, etc. Perhaps he simply wants to go home. But I hope he stays here. We need more like him.
Oh, by the way, if you have not seen the video of the Falcon 9 flight, it is here
And Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year