The New Space Race

The old Space Race, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, is on full display in the excellent film First Man.  The new space race doesn’t have the same ideological, future of civilization elements as the old one, and is a lot more multi-faceted, but it’s just as important to our long-term future in space.

And right now, the United States is winning.

wvws_falcon-heavy-demo-2310The new space race focuses on commercial spaceflight and launching vehicles into space.  For years, the United States was playing catch-up to the Europeans, and trailing badly.  The Euros were launching the majority of satellites and vehicles into space, using their Ariane rocket, while the United States was retiring its primary launch vehicle, the space shuttle, without having any back-up in place.  In 2011, when the shuttle was retired, there were no commercial satellite launches from any American spaceports, and for the next few years the launch industry was dominated by the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, launching from government-backed providers.

But now the tide has turned.  America led the way in commercial launches in 2016 and 2017, and 2018 is shaping up to be even better.  The trend is so pronounced that European advocates are afraid that they are falling behind and won’t catch up.

The reason for trend is that the United States has made room for commercial entities, like SpaceX, to enter the launching game.  While the United States government still is a major player in space, SpaceX’s focus on innovation and cost control, through use of reusable rockets, have made it extremely competitive in bidding for launch jobs, whether it is commercial satellites being placed into orbit or missions to the international space station.  And new entrants to the competition, like Blue Origin, are set to participate — which is likely to make the American lead even more pronounced.  The article linked above notes:  “the uniquely American approach of government support and investment in private space is paying dividends, creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort.”

It’s nice to know that American capitalism, and good old-fashioned competition, can still produce innovation and leadership — and now in space.

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First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.