My television is currently tuned in to history in the making. At this moment, the SpaceX DM-2 mission is under way: The Falcon 9 “Dragon” capsule took off on Saturday, May 29 at 3:22 pm EST, and veteran NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are now mere meters away from docking with the International Space Station.
In a way, this is just another mission to the ISS and back. What makes it historic is the fact that the Dragon capsule was fully designed, assembled, tested and flown by a commercial company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation. Every other trip to space has been flown in vehicles built and flown by governments, with their extensive resources and people contracted from multiple disciplines. The Dragon is the first commercial vehicle to fly into space. Incidentally, it’s the first flight back to the ISS from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. And at this point, even if the flight does not go exactly as planned, there’s no doubt that it won’t be the last.
This is a moment that science fiction writers, and later real scientists and engineers, have imagined and discussed for a century: The moment when space ceases to be the exclusive purview of governments, and becomes accessible to corporations and, eventually, private individuals. The potential implications of commercial access to space include private orbital research facilities, hotels in orbit and on other worlds, mining the asteroids and moving a significant part of the human population into permanent off-Earth habitats… the things fictional media has been depicting for so long that we almost feel we’ve already experienced it. This is a true milestone for humanity’s reach into space. The event has been watched and commemorated worldwide.
It’s a profound shame, therefore, that 2020—or, for that matter, May 2020—won’t be remembered for this historic moment. Instead, 2020 will forever be renowned for a plague that, thanks to mismanaging politicians, has ravaged the world… and May, 2020 for yet another incident in a series of seemingly never-ending racially-incited murders perpetrated by American government-supported authority figures, followed by all-too-familiar national riots and destruction.
For much the same reasons that have kept me from updating this blog as regularly as I usually do, the US has become too perpetually distracted and stressed by the steps being taken to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, and the disruption to regular life (including the loss of my two jobs thanks to the pandemic lockdown of businesses), as well as incensed by the nonstop racial tensions and sanctioned attacks upon black and brown Americans, and the man-made destruction and damage causing worldwide strife. With all of that going on, that it’s become hard to stop and notice the advancements of science and technology, from the most mundane to the most incredible and ground-breaking.
Not that this phenomenon is particularly new, of course. But it is funny how, just as we stand ready to trumpet the achievement of this historic milestone, the rigors of life seem to ramp up to drown even this out. It possibly doesn’t help that the aforementioned media has become so good at portraying activity in space, with their advancements in special effects and attention to detail, that the unique and exotic nature of space has become diluted over time. And as we’re in a period when the things we learn from being in space don’t seem to trickle down into exciting new products and developments for use by consumers on Earth, we’ve become jaded by the sight of live astronauts and practical space station interiors.
Perhaps we’ll see a nice bump of public interest with the images of the Dragon capsule, which has taken a leap from the external and internal designs of past spacecraft and now features modern computer systems, touch-screen interfaces and an overall aesthetic that seems to be catching up to the fanciful movies and television shows we’ve been treated to since… hell, since before we ever landed on the Moon.
But most likely, the bump will be short-lived, as the realities of living on this blue marble will surely throw more cold blankets over our daily lives and struggles. For me, I continue to stay at home to avoid flu carriers who act defiant over the requirement of social distancing and wearing masks in public; I still need to find a new job (or two) before my unemployment and stimulus benefits end; financial constraints are threatening my health and causing frustration in my home; and my immediate future looks increasingly bleak.
With all that on my plate, there’s a good chance that I, too, will have to go back to concentrating on the pressures and frustrations of my daily life, and will soon forget about this historic moment for all mankind. Maybe at some point in the future, I’ll recall enough of this to want to commemorate it with a keychain…