The new Space Age began Tuesday, even though so much of it felt like the old one -- in a good way.
SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, more powerful than any rocket in use today, was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a payload intended to fly near Mars one day
Once the massive rocket sprinted off historic launchpad 39A about 3:45 p.m., everything seemed to go off as planned, from the activation of David Bowie's music as soundtrack to the pinpoint return of two reusable booster rockets to separate platforms on the ground.
Let us elaborate: The boosters fired retro rockets, unfolded their landing gear and touched down like helicopters.
As we say: This is a new Space Age.
What felt familiar, however, was the breathtaking and (literally) earthshaking excitement of watching a massive man-made launch vehicle destined to push something man-made farther than anyone can now imagine. The only thing that could have stoked the emotions harder was knowing there was a human being aboard.
There wasn't. There was a red Tesla Roadster with a dummy in a space suit behind the wheel. That's "dummy" as in mannequin, not a figure of speech or a joke.
"Red car for red planet" is what Elon Musk tweeted several months ago when this whole project was becoming a reality. Musk is the founder and CEO of SpaceX. Tesla is his car company.
And that is the biggest distinction of this new Space Age: private companies seizing the initiative in space travel that once belonged solely to government. The American taxpayer doesn't have to pay a dime for SpaceX projects. The Falcon Heavy costs Musk $90 million, which sounds like a lot until you compare it with Falcon Heavy's nearest competitor, United Launch Alliance's Delta IV rocket, whose comparative costs are estimated at as much as $400 million.
We speak of a $90 million booster system, you understand, with reusable components, capable, by some estimates, of carrying a fully loaded, totally booked Boeing 737 jet liner with room enough for a couple more Tesla sedans.
Indeed, after the sheer exhilaration of Tuesday's test flight wears away, you're still left pondering the stunning possibilities unleashed by its (so far) apparent success. Space X could begin fielding offers from other companies, even governments, to service long-range, long-distance missions into deep space. We could be entering a period of buccaneers, free-lance adventurers, speculators...
Actually, that's all pretty frightening to contemplate, and in good and bad ways. But maybe it takes the go-for-broke entrepreneurship of Musk and his fellow privately endowed dreamers to rekindle possibilities many of us thought had vanished when the last space shuttle mission touched down seven years ago.
Yes, there were elements of big-tent entertainment and hoopla to Tuesday's test launch, right down to the Bowie music ("Life on Mars"? of course). But admit it. Hype was the booster engine that drove the mid-20th century space race. Hype. All those solemn words asserting the importance of American democratic purpose and know-how triumphing over what was then perceived as "dark" Soviet machinations toward global domination.
Sounds silly now, somewhat. But at the time, it got everybody's blood pumping, inspired generations of schoolchildren throughout the world to dream big and aim high, though there were just as many people complaining about the cost to the taxpayer.
Speaking of which, where's NASA in all this, you might wonder? It's building its own version of a heavy booster, the Space Launch System, that's expected to send humankind back to the moon and then beyond. The earliest that's expected to be ready for test launching is 2020. Nothing is assured in life, or in space.
So if there's a "space race" now, it may well be between private enterprise with its resources and government programs with their history of expertise. The guess here is that there won't be a winner in the race so much as an unwieldy mix of competitors for, if you will, space. Is this how space exploration goes on now for the foreseeable future?
"Forever" is a long time, especially in the future. But something about this new Space Age and its myriad players comes across as not only familiar, but inevitable. Whether we've chosen to acknowledge it or not, we've been heading for this moment, probably as far back as the 1960s, when thoughtful people were wondering, even in the blush of government-subsidized space spectaculars, if all this effort is worth it.
Well, IS it worth it? We won't know until we try. Musk will likely tell you that, and so will NASA. It's not the most detailed or satisfying answer. But until a better one occurs, sit back and enjoy the show.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly characterized SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket as bigger and more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that carried men to the moon a half-century ago. It is not; it is more powerful than any rocket in use today. Its payload is intended to fly near Mars one day.