I watched the triumphant launch and landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last night with my 8 year-old son and 13 year-old daughter. I explained to them why reusable rockets are a big deal and what can be accomplished with cheaper spaceflight. They seemed mildly impressed. They liked the pyrotechnics of the launch. Their attention waned and they seemed like they would drift off back to their Instagram feeds and Pokemon cards.
Then the re-entry started. They watched the live feed of the crowds at Cape Canaveral. Their eyes were locked on the screen. When the landing occurred, they both yelped in delight. They saw the energy and the tears of the SpaceX employees and they were enraptured by the scene of an auditorium full of adults screaming their heads off.
I had explained to my kids how difficult a maneuver SpaceX was attempting. I explained to them that multiple NASA employees with whom I’ve spoken over the last few years have told me that landing a rocket after going into space is an impossible task and not worth the resources it would take to try it. I told them that the owner of SpaceX made billions of dollars writing software code and then decided to spend it all on making spaceships and sports cars. They understood the enormous engineering mountain that those SpaceX employees had just scaled. They comprehended the withering criticism they withstood. They grasped that those people cheering in the video had probably spent the last decade working ninety hour weeks in order to succeed at this task.
But none of those accomplishments are what caused my eyes to tear up. It was the look in my children’s eyes. They had just witnessed a group of people conquer an impossible task through hard work and sacrifice. They had just learned just how powerful humanity can be, when harnessed correctly. In those six minutes from launch to landing, they felt in their bones the power of hope. And that, as Linus (not Pauling) might have said, is the deeper meaning of the recyclable rockets of SpaceX.