Joe Raedle, Getty Images
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy lands autonomously at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch Is Our Sputnik Moment

Feb. 8, 2018
Elon Musk and SpaceX just pulled off one of the great engineering feats of our time. How long will we be talking about the first Falcon Heavy launch (and landing)?

By Miles Free

I was privileged to be able to witness the live stream of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Elon Musk and SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into space, and later landed two booster engine modules simultaneously and autonomously. This was just a small part of the technology displayed by the Falcon Heavy launch.

But here is why I say that this is the start of a new era:

  • This is proof that autonomy in our technology is real. It’s no longer about listening to a reporter somewhere talking about autonomous cars on test tracks. We got to see it ourselves. It works. Now, it’s just a matter of scaling and networking the technology. We’ll be seeing this in our customers’ products sooner than we expected.
  • Private enterprise, for the win. NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that “the NASA SLS (Space Launch System) heavy rocket would cost about $1 billion per launch.” The Falcon Heavy cost is about $90 million per Launch. That’s about $910,000,000 in unneeded taxes per launch.
  • This launch has proved that the existential joy of engineering is alive and well, and making cost-effective technology in private enterprise. Space is no longer limited to staid, bureaucratic rationalizations that it is for research for the common good missions. No. Now it’s about the human spirit and what we can achieve.
  • This was not cobbled together by the lowest bidder with a bunch of imported parts. Although the label on a circuit board proudly proclaims “Made on Earth by humans” this is validation of the capability of U.S. private enterprise, engineering, and the entrepreneurial equivalent of the gold record on Voyager.
  • This is the defining event of the new renaissance of engineering, entrepreneurialism, and manufacturing to further mankind’s material progress. Through our own capable efforts.

I am glad to be a witness to this milestone in the renaissance of manufacturing, engineering, and entrepreneurial accomplishment here in America. An electric car is on its way to Mars. I watched two booster engines land themselves simultaneously. I watched the joy of the engineers as their work accomplished its demonstration of the power of our technology. This is the current generation’s Sputnik moment.

Baby boomers can just barely remember what Sputnik did to transform our culture, but many of us chose science, technology and engineering careers. With the Heavy Falcon launch, we all had the chance to see a similar watershed for technology, manufacturing, and entrepreneurial spirit — and that it is cool again.

Miles Free is the director of technology and industry research for the Precision Machined Products Association, and has almost four decades of experience in manufacturing, quality and steelmaking. This piece first appeared on the PMPA Speaking of Precision blog.

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