PR in Space

When I was a kid, my parents let me watch the Space Shuttle launches. They were often delayed, so I remember waiting in the morning, watching the countdown and liftoff, then running off late to 2nd grade.

Then in 1986, the Challenger disaster happened during the launch, and in 2003 the Columbia broke apart on re-entry. The shuttle program was shut down, and I pushed that youthful excitement aside to live a life wondering about global warming, instead of how to terraform a habitable Mars.

This morning, I heard on the internet that SpaceX was launching their heavy booster rocket. Somehow I’d missed that they were launching a Tesla towards Mars. (Wait, a Tesla? Yep. We’ll come back to this.) Ten minutes later, I’d tuned in to the live webcast of the Falcon Heavy launch, and was excitedly showing my son Orion (yes, that’s his name) as we watched the countdown.

It was exhilarating! I was pointing out parts of the process, when suddenly the Tesla was floating in space. It’s more than a little disconcerting to realize your childhood hopes and dreams have been hijacked to deliver a car commercial. (At least it’s an electric car? But electric cars are still a huge part of the problem!) At any rate, I’m not sure I want the future where we go to Mars for the benjamins.

Meanwhile, two of the falcon rockets made their way back for a simultaneous landing. This was stunning to see, but what about that third core? Watching the live feed, you can tell something’s gone wrong. The bubbly hosts are off script and grasping at straws, and you can see (or rather not see, SpaceX has sensors and two cameras on everything, so they definitely have telemetry and footage).

The PR aspect of this whole thing kicks in. If SpaceX had a successful landing, they’d show it. Not showing us feels like damage control. The sucky thing about outsourcing our space program to private corporations is that they control the signal.

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