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SpaceX Falcon Heavy test: Sacrificing Teslas on the altar of progress and inspiration

Was last week's test launch cheesy and tactless -- or a necessary technological demonstration of our country's ability to achieve actual greatness to a disaffected and unprepared generation?
By Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer on
(Image: SpaceX)

My ZDNet Australia colleague, Chris Duckett, believes that last week's SpaceX Falcon Heavy test launch was "excessively cheesy and tactless."

I don't know what rocket launch Chris saw, but I can assure you, in the US, we reserve those descriptors for our politicians and our heads of state.

First, let us be clear what this launch -- or, rather, a fully functional flight test -- represented.

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Our best chance

It is our best chance -- or, rather, our best private sector insurance policy -- to return western society to manned space exploration, and onward to the moon and Mars.

As far as I am concerned, if it requires the sacrifice of an outdated electric sports car, and a mannequin wearing a faux space suit to the spirits of the cosmos to pull it off, so be it.

But let us be honest, folks: What would we all prefer to use as a payload weight on an initial functional test? A billion-dollar defense satellite? An interplanetary probe developed by our international partners? Or a communications satellite for a developing nation?

The technical challenges to pull off the Falcon Heavy flight test -- and to safely land triple variable thrust, liquid-fueled rocket boosters à la Buck Rogers in synchronized tandem (OK, the center core didn't make it, but this was a test) -- were immense, to put it mildly.

This particular combination of technology and mission goals had never actually been attempted or achieved before. The heaviest commercial boosters we currently have are derived from outdated ICBM platforms. They aren't in any way reusable and don't have the same performance characteristics.

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Let them have some fun

So, I suggest we cut these people some slack. Let them have some fun. They worked their tails off.

Every time I watch the official launch and landing videos for the Falcon Heavy (as well as the civilian ones), I get chills up my spine as if I am witnessing something out of a science fiction movie. Except, I have to slap myself on the face, because it is real.

That I have lived to actually see something like this fills me with pride. After all, we still have companies and individuals capable of doing such things in this nation -- at a time when we are politically divided and Americans are at each other's ideological throats on a daily basis.

This must have been what it was like to see the Saturn V launches in the late 1960s: A fleeting pride in our nation's technological achievement against a backdrop of conflict and division regarding virtually everything.

If a space launch like this can bring my nation together, even for the duration of a lunch break, I say give Elon Musk's company enough funding to do a Falcon Heavy launch every week until we run out of first-generation Tesla roadsters, or all three of the boosters can land with high levels of safety and precision, whatever the hell comes first.

Read also: Tech and the future of transportation: From here to there

An educational crisis

Our Australian bureau chief is correct, however, that we need this to inspire a new generation of students to enter STEM. But it goes beyond that. We are approaching an educational crisis in this country, one that has absolutely horrible implications for the future of our nation.

I have a number of friends who are educators in primary school, high school, and at the university level. And the stories I am told behind closed doors utterly disgust me.

Teachers cannot be paid livable wages, and therefore, nobody wants to go into education. Few of our teachers have advanced degrees -- let alone certifications. Schools are underfunded and cannot even get kids basic supplies and modern textbooks. Students cannot pass basic competency tests, and can barely graduate.

We can't get skilled workers out of this crop of kids -- let alone ones that can graduate high school, enter college, and move into STEM careers. Countries like China are kicking our ass. And they will surpass us if we do not do something.

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End the cycle of brain drain

So, if it happens that the over-the-top sight of a mannequin in a space suit driving a Tesla roadster otherwise destined for scrap -- shown from a live streaming POV camera orbiting the Earth -- inspires a few children to do something with their lives, great.

If we are lucky, some of those kids will turn out to be engineers or researchers who will innovate and discover new things.

And perhaps they'll end the cycle of brain drain and hatred of academia, intellectualism, science, and technical expertise that is destroying what actually did make our country great in the first place.

I don't call that tactless and cheesy. I call that an investment in America's future. And if we really do want to make this country great again -- one which inspires and does great things of quantifiable value -- then maybe we do need to scrounge up a few more overpriced electric sports cars and shoot them into the Sun.

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