SpaceX just accomplished something incredible, and no one's paying attention
And even if you are paying attention, you might have heard that SpaceX's latest space launch was a failure. It was actually a success.
The launch had two goals: The first was to supply the International Space Station, and that was successful; but the second one, much more important, was to land the company's Falcon rocket upright so that it could be reused.
The rocket did not land upright. But as an excellent explainer by Business Insider's Jessica Orwig shows, SpaceX actually accomplished almost all its goals. The rocket landed on its platform. But the guiding fins, which help the rocket rotate and steer, ran out of hydraulic fluid, and the rocket crashed on its pad.
It's worth noting a few things here: the stakes; the magnitude of the task; and the nature of the failure.
First, the stakes. Humanity has known how to launch payloads into orbit for well over 50 years now. But humanity still isn't a spacefaring civilization. We haven't been able to turn a space trip into something as routine as a plane trip. We haven't been able to create space colonies or to put a durable foot down in space. One big reason for that is that rockets are enormously expensive. And a reason why rockets are enormously expensive is because each time you use one, it gets destroyed. The space shuttle program was supposed to fix that, but it was just a massively incompetent boondoggle. If you had to blow up a Boeing 747 each time you used it, there would be very little plane flight either. So building a reusable rocket is probably the biggest low-hanging fruit in terms of making space flight affordable.
Second, the magnitude of the task. You can imagine that if building a reusable rocket was easy, we would have done it by now. A rocket is an enormously explode-y thing. It is a massive tube full of combustible material. What's more, it has to go through the atmosphere and back, which is enormously stressful on all the materials. Building a reusable rocket is something we have been failing to master for decades.
Which brings us to, third, the nature of the failure. Almost everything SpaceX tried to do with this launch, they accomplished. They had one tiny failure, which caused the rocket to crash. That is the nature of space stuff. If one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong. But, in terms of engineering, they have leaped much, much closer to the goal than the combined efforts of the governments of the United States, Russia, and Europe have gotten us for decades. Just pause and consider that for a second.
Which is why, even though technically it's true that this launch was only a partial success, we should still pay attention and consider how far we've come, and how enormously impressive this all is.
There is another important point, here: This is being done by a private-sector company. Governments took the first step toward being space-faring, but didn't get us much further because they're, well, governments. Space-age technology is very tricky, but it's still 1960s technology. The problem is not the technology. The problem is human. It is organizational. When the main driver of space exploration is the government, there is too little incentive to innovate, and too much incentive for everything to become a bureaucratic nightmare. This is true even, or especially, when you have private-sector contractors, who combine the worst aspects of business and government bureaucracies.
It's good that we have SpaceX; it would be even better if there were many more entrepreneurial companies like it.