Watching The Launch

When I was a kid back in the ’60s, we used to be trooped into the school auditorium at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio to watch every launch of every rocket that was taking an American astronaut into space.  Between the countdowns, and the holds, and the cryptic communications of “launch control,” and the possibility of a disaster, and Walter Cronkite urging “go, baby, go!,” rocket launches were almost unbearably exciting.  And when NASA started launched the enormous Saturn V rockets that were used to propel the Apollo missions to the Moon, which were among the loudest devices ever made by humanity, the spectacle became even more intense.

So I watched the video of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday, beginning with the rocket on the familiar Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy launchpad, heard the countdown, saw the smoke and the flames and the rocket pushing slowly and inexorably against the titanic forces of gravity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and go soaring into space, and it brought those memories all back, and produced the same kind of tingle and hairs-standing-on-end feeling that I got in those long ago days in the school auditorium.

I’m glad the launch was a success and that SpaceX was able to successfully land two of the side boosters back on Earth, although the main booster was not successfully retrieved.  It’s a huge achievement and step forward for a company that is one of the leaders of the movement toward getting us back into space.  And I’m glad that, thanks to the efforts of the Falcon Heavy thrusters, Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster and a “Starman” wearing a SpaceX uniform have been successfully thrown out past Mars, where they will orbit around the Sun forever.

But mostly, I’m just glad that I got to see a huge rocket launch again.  Deep down, I’d still love to be an astronaut.

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The Demise Of The Internal Combustion Engine Is (Probably) Greatly Exaggerated

Volvo has announced that it plans to phase out production of automobiles powered by the internal combustion engine.  After 2019, all Volvo car models will be either fully electric or hybrids, and the company has set a goal of selling one million electric or hybrid cars by 2025.

This week, too, Tesla begins production of its electric-powered family car.  And, as the article linked above notes, all of the major car companies are looking ahead to the point where people are routinely buying electric vehicles, and to the “tipping point” at which some electric vehicles are actually cheaper than their conventionally powered competitors.

cq5dam-web-768-768Are we witnessing the end of the internal combustion engine — the hardy invention that, in some form or another, has powered personal transportation in America, and the world, for more than 100 years?

Not so fast!

There’s no doubt that electric cars, and especially hybrids, are gaining in popularity, but I think we’re still a long way off from the day when quietly purring electric vehicles dominate American streets.  For one thing, we don’t seem to have the infrastructure to support substantial use of electric cars, especially for long-distance trips — I haven’t noticed charging stations opening up on busy intersections to compete with those ever-present gas stations, at least not yet — and as the article notes, electric cars remain an expensive proposition.  And there’s also the fact that a substantial sliver of the American population, typically male, really likes the power and sound and thrumming feel of cars powered by internal combustion engines.  “Performance” cars seem to be extremely popular these days, as do grossly oversized and overpowered pickup trucks, and we’re still getting the annual stories about how cheap, or how expensive, gasoline is on the Fourth of July.  Those reports suggest that while we definitely seem to be inching toward a world of more electric-powered vehicles, we shouldn’t be shoveling dirt on the internal combustion engine just yet.