These days, the things people of differing tastes, opinions and viewpoints can agree on are few and far between. So when there is such an event that can be celebrated and appreciated by people who might otherwise stand divided, it feels historic in some way, like some kind of larger human triumph.
Such was the case when billionaire Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX successfully launched the world’s most powerful rocket into outer space.
I happened to have the TV on, unaware that the launch was about to happen, when the news program I was watching cut live to Cape Canaveral. The commentators noted that Musk himself gave the rocket a 60-percent chance of successfully making it off the pad, and they kept warning us all the way up to the very last minute any one of a number of people working in different departments and monitoring different factors could pull the plug and cancel the launch, but none did.
Next thing you know, the three rockets that were linked to form one giant rocket, with 27 engines inside, started firing up and lifting off from the same launch pad used by the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission.
We were told the biggest question marks and main concerns all related to things that could occur in the first minute — whether all those powerful engines working together would cause vibrations that could build up in unpredictable ways and shake so much that the thing would just blow apart. When it didn’t, the aerospace correspondents who were walking us through the whole thing on TV started telling us what was expected to happen and when, and sure enough it all unfolded on cue.
The 100,000-plus people watching live from the grounds below, and the tens of millions of us watching from afar cheered aloud and silently as the ball of fire rose into the sky. When the two side boosters separated from the central core and returned to Earth, tail first, to make perfect soft landings on two adjacent platforms, chills upon chills spread through my body, rose up my spine, descended down my arms, and ignited the light in my mind, and in that moment it felt like we were entering a new era of new possibility.
And the best thing about it is it felt like it was somehow connected to the old ways, the old dreams, the old spirit and the old pride.
As with Robert Frost’s two roads that diverged in the woods, I have been more than a little concerned about the seeming divergence of the electronic world of technology and the world of flesh and bone, heart and soul. Can the latter, which is really the former, keep pace with the former, which is really the latter? In Elon Musk, there seems to be the hint or the hope that it can, as long as we hold on to our humanity and use it to connect our heritage to our destiny.
The cherry on top came in the form of a cherry-red Tesla roadster, which caught a ride on the rocket into outer space. We saw video of a mannequin in a spacesuit sitting in the driver’s seat, with its right hand on the steering wheel and its left arm leaning on the door window, just the way someone cruising the boulevard would look, only this one’s cruising through the universe. On the car’s dashboard are the words “Don’t panic,” taken from “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,” while David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is playing from the radio on a continuous loop.
In this grand display, knowledge and wisdom are brought together, pop culture meets science and technology, the 1950s and 2050, the old and the new and the old and the young connected to the preciousness of the past and a future that’s a little more exciting.