A few minutes before the launch of the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted: “Whatever happens today we could not have done it without @Nasa, but errors are ours alone and me most of all.”
His words proved somewhat prescient when, a few minutes later, the Falcon 9 launcher shut down at the very last second. Having commentated myself on more than my fair share of launch failures (three so far…I’m not proud), I really felt for the poor Nasa guy at mission control. All credit to him for rather neatly turning the words “lift off” into “shut off”.
When the Falcon 9 really did blast off, I noticed he was careful to use the word “launch”, instead. But what a launch…with smoke billowing from the pad, the white rocket described a perfect arc across the night sky over Florida.
Amid the frenzy of excitement, I was part of the virtual crowd tweeting about a “new era” in human spaceflight. But SpaceX hasn’t done anything particularly new; it’s just done it differently. As Musk acknowledges, you don’t build a space rocket without studying some history. And not just the missions that go to plan.
I’m particularly drawn to the striking parallels between the SpaceX launch and a couple of missions, 50 years earlier, at the very dawn of the space age. One kick-started an entire industry, the other almost ended in disaster.
The biggest space story of 1962 wasn’t John Glenn’s pioneering orbital flight but the launch of a small spherical satellite around a metre across. Fitted with a valve amplifier, Telstar was the first active communications satellite. ‘Active’ because it didn’t just go beep like Sputnik but was capable of receiving and transmitting television pictures.
Just a day after launch, the satellite beamed the first live TV across the Atlantic. The event captured headlines around the world and even inspired a hit record. Telstar by the Tornadoes was number one on both sides of the pond and the first British hit to reach number one in the US.
Although Nasa provided the launcher, Telstar was built and paid for by phone company AT&T as a private venture. So, the idea of a private company working in partnership with a space agency is nothing new. I would though sound a note of caution for SpaceX: in the subsequent publicity surrounding Telstar, Nasa did its best to take the credit.
Communication to and from space – enabling us to communicate with anywhere on Earth – represents one of the greatest contributions space technology has made to our lives in the last 50 years.
I watched the Dragon launch on the phone while walking my son to school. If SpaceX can make even a fraction of the impact of Telstar, it will be a success. But today’s space entrepreneurs could also do well to learn from another pioneering mission that flew almost exactly half a century before SpaceX’s mission to the ISS. Unlike the celebrations that surrounded Telstar, this one has been quietly forgotten. But it may have been just as important…
It is 24 May 1962, almost a year after President John F Kennedy has promised an American would walk on the moon’s surface by the end of the decade. Carpenter is in the final hour of his five-hour mission, the fourth manned Nasa space flight. His mission involves hours of scientific experiments. The problem is, these experiments have distracted him from the re-entry checklist. The craft is critically short on fuel.