The rocket was taken to space by three powerful boosters and it carried, like a cherry on the cake, a red Tesla car. Two of the three boosters made it back to Earth and landed simultaneously, in a technological ballet so beautiful that many conspiracy theorists said it could not be real. It was not fake; it was human ingenuity, driven by vision and supported by smart financing. The third booster was supposed to come back shortly afterward, but unfortunately it did not fire properly and was lost. The main capsule was supposed to send the red Tesla on an orbit that would get close to Mars, in a large elliptical trajectory around the sun. There too, a glitch made the orbit much wider, so the car will pass beyond Mars and reach the asteroid belt.
Those were minor glitches, and I don’t say that because I am too excited or only want to see the positives. Launching such a big rocket; getting two of the three boosters to land beautifully back at the spaceport from where they left; and sending a large object into an orbit around the sun — these are all first-time achievements, particularly for a private company with a short history. The errors in the third booster and in the car’s trajectory will be studied, and I have no doubt that they will be corrected for future launches.
As is often the case, it only takes one visionary, diligent and determined person to make the impossible — in this case Musk and his dream of landing men on Mars — appear possible.
I want to also applaud Musk’s ability to capture the public’s attention and imagination. The live webcast of the launch was YouTube’s second-most-watched event ever. Undoubtedly, the red Tesla and all its symbols (the dummy “driver” named Starman sitting at the wheel, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” song playing in space, the car’s little screen displaying “Don’t Panic” recalling “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and more) had much to do with it. But, most importantly, the idea of going to Mars (the red planet) in style (a red convertible Tesla) just captured everyone’s imagination. “We are really going there,” everyone was thinking. “And it’s almost like a road trip.”
A few months ago, Musk announced that he was planning to send two big equipment-carrying spacecraft to Mars in 2022, to be followed by one carrying astronauts in 2024. No rocket with such capability was available then, let alone the technology to reach the red planet and land on it with such big modules. And let us not forget the radiation that the astronauts will be exposed to during their round trip (at least six months each way) and during their stay there (several months as a minimum), and other serious complications. All those doubts evaporated in our minds with just one launch and one striking red car “driving” in space.
Some have likened this moment — or at least the approaching day of humans boarding a spacecraft to Mars — to the days that followed Columbus’ discovery of the New World, when the European powers rushed to gain a foothold in the new continent and make important strategic and economic gains. Indeed, SpaceX will soon be joined in its space exploration ventures by Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company) and NASA, both of which are currently building their own big rockets.
But the analogy I preferred was the one expressed by Marcelo Gleiser, the physicist and writer, who likened the fast-approaching human trip to Mars to the “out of Africa” moment, when humanity decided to move into Asia and then Europe. Scholars have debated the reasons that made humans go “out of Africa,” and some have mentioned an “exploration gene” that some humans carry: The same one that pushes people to climb Everest just “because it’s there.”
Until a few years ago, landing on Mars seemed like a nice futuristic dream, hindered by experts repeating how difficult and costly it would be. But, as is often the case with humans, it only takes one visionary, diligent and determined person to make the impossible suddenly seem very possible; perhaps even within reach.
Some of my followers on Facebook and Twitter wished it had been an Arab who, with his money and vision, had led such a visionary plan. Indeed, so far all the players (Musk, Bezos, NASA, and others) have been American. But this venture “out of Earth” concerns all humanity. Let us hope that the historic “giant leap” to Mars will be made internationally, reminding us that we are one.
• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.