Falcon 9 launch with Crew Dragon

View from Manchester: ‘Mankind first’?

Image credit: Nasa/Bill Ingalls

Crew Dragon has been a massive engineering success for Nasa and SpaceX, but is that enough?

Well done, Nasa and SpaceX. Demonstration Mission 2 of a crewed Dragon spacecraft launched upon the Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station (Crew Dragon DM-2, to its friends) has been a tremendous success so far.

For any space geek, this was a welcome respite from lockdown. The Falcon may have been evolving for a decade, used on almost 90 launches and dispatched with an earlier Dragon carrying two non-human payloads for the ISS already, but you still watched this mission pass each milestone from launch preparation with bated breath.

All spaceflight is horrendously complex; crewed spaceflight is something else again. This weekend, Elon Musk also delivered it on a commercial basis. Even allowing for the dual-use technologies that were commercialised by earlier Nasa partners, all the way back to Mercury, that is an incredible technological and economic achievement. It could hugely extend our opportunities in space exploration.

In that light, it’s worth remembering that just a few months ago, the tensions between SpaceX and Nasa were such that the agency’s head openly tweeted about them. You can move fast and fix things.

Something potentially amazing has begun. And if you want the Pollyanna version, stop right here.

Because there is a ‘but’ – the spectre of Trumpism.

Crew Dragon Endeavour’s pathfinding journey coincides with some of the worst civil unrest the US has seen in more than 50 years.

Now, Apollo was also moving towards its primary goal in 1968, the year that saw those earlier street battles as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The difference though is that amid that social chaos, the Apollo programme did promote inclusiveness (and was arguably a slightly quicker learner than the US as a whole).

There was always sharp debate over its ‘value’ given the fissures and poverty in American society. Indeed, Apollo missions started to be cancelled on budgetary grounds less than a year after Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969. But there was a special magic in three words that inspired so much of the effort, ‘For all mankind’.

So much magic, that even in the 21st century, Apple has still decided to seize upon them for the title to one of its latest TV dramas.

Those words underpinned Apollo’s objectives. While there was an obvious Cold War propaganda side, they projected a sense of global ambition in terms of technology and exploration - and a positive sense of American leadership. In contemporary terms, it was all about rocket-fuelled soft power.

For so many reasons, we could use some of that right now. Instead, Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine almost deliberately recast the old motto during the mission’s post-launch press conference: “This launch is for all of America.”

Unlike most Nasa leaders, Bridenstine is a career politician with an interest but no STEM academic background. He is a one-time Republican congressman, Tea Party enthusiast and climate-change sceptic who is seen as loyal to President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda. He is not the kind of person to use words like those without knowing their context.

To his credit, Elon Musk actively avoided bringing anything political to the discussion. Visibly moved, he stood for the achievement and the adventure to come.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s my increasingly jaundiced view of the Trump presidency. It’s hard to watch riots near the place you think of as home and be sure that your commentary is ‘balanced’.

Yet when the Crew Dragon launch was postponed last week, I finally caught up with the fantastic Apollo 11 documentary originally released last year and now on Netflix. The tone was different; the ambitions were universal. That America was more generous with its dreams and its innovations. It wasn’t perfect (Vietnam was also a massive issue during the Apollo era), but when you compare where we are today, it feels like there is a desperately damaging vacancy.

Congratulations with caveats so often sound mealy-mouthed. But here they are necessary, also because one of the other great things that achievement in space exploration should do is show us the best of ourselves as a single human race.

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