Flight and wonder

I was alerted to the impending launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy just moments before it left earth. I got the news via a work Slack channel and ran from my home office to the TV in the living room, leaving just enough time to grumble at Chromecast before the countdown.

A long time – a generation, and almost my entire lifetime – has gone by since I sat in my elementary school cafeteria and watched the space shuttle Columbia lift off. I think we all sat on the floor, tables rolled out of the way to fit more kids in the room, and squinted at the launch on a television wheeled in on a lumbering black cart. At seven, I lacked a lot of the context needed to feel that Columbia was remarkable. Of course we were going to space because the reality of space had existed for the whole of my lifetime (I knew this because of the Apollo mission glass tumbler set at my parents’ house). And later that year, of course there was a woman aboard the shuttle because why wouldn’t there be?

The things that have happened between these two events – technologically speaking, anyway – are astonishing. The difference between a world where kids are herded into a big room to try and witness history on a 19-inch CRT television and a world where I can command my phone to stream a video on my 55-inch flat screen is enormous. The amount of ingenuity and invention and teamwork that makes such developments possible is staggering and inspiring.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I watched open-mouthed as two of Falcon Heavy’s rockets gently came back to Earth, landing precisely where they were meant to land, as upright as you please. That the third one biffed its planned landing on a drone ship far out to sea hardly ruins it for me, just think about that sentence for a minute: a drone ship. A drone ship!

There’s a lot about technology that I find cold and disappointing and at times even malevolent or at least, morally ambiguous. This is almost entirely because our brains are capable of ideating and bringing to fruition tools that we don’t fully understand – we understand that we want to use them, that we may even need them, but we don’t understand how they might be bent against us.

Because we can do things like launch a Tesla into space, I feel confident that we can come to grips with the need to understand the power of the tech we build. I feel confident that we can solve problems that have been considered unsolvable for all of recorded time. I feel confident about these things because we still have the power to wonder.

If you haven’t watched the launch, I recommend it.