“It wasn’t a miracle. We just decided to go.”

That may be my favorite quote from the movie Apollo 13. Jim Lovell says it to his wife as they relax in their backyard, after all of their guests have gone home from their watch party for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Lovell’s amazement at the feat of landing on the moon isn’t just at the fact of the location, but that all it took to get there was a decade-plus (well, with a lot of stuff coming before) of applied human ingenuity.

The human presence in space hasn’t quite gone according to the plan my six-year-old brain thought it would, way back when I first became aware that space wasn’t just some grand cosmic realm where the mysterious stars lay; it was just a gigantic place of which we were a part, and we humans could simply go there. When I was six, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that within a short time–thirty years? forty? fifty, tops!–we’d have permanent space stations, the first moon bases, and maybe even the makings of a colony on another planet, maybe Mars. Of course, it didn’t go according to plan, did it? Nothing big ever does.
We humans lost a bit of focus on space, and we made some choices that weren’t obvious or perfect, and we have proceeded in fits and starts. As we lost the Cold War impetus that drove so much of that initial development, an impetus of which I was unaware when I was six, it seemed that we lost a lot of focus. The space shuttle was initially exciting but it became less and less so, until one of them exploded; then it settled back into routine until another one failed on re-entry. America had a small space station, that didn’t last long; the Soviets had one that lasted a bit longer. Then a bunch of countries got together to build the “International Space Station,” which is somehow both amazing and…well, it seems just a bit small to the part of me that still dreams in the same way that I did when I was six.
But it can still be exciting. We got a big reminder of that today, when NASA and SpaceX teamed up to finally succeed in launching a rocket carrying American astronauts into space. Ever since the shuttle was retired, Americans have been hitching rides with the Russians. That may be good from an international cooperation standpoint, but America still needs its own launch capability if it’s to maintain a presence in space, and the SpaceX rocket has seen increasingly promising results for the last few years. No longer are multi-stage rockets just dumping their spent stages to fall into the ocean; not only are the stages recoverable, but they actually land on their own power to live to fly another day.
Today, America returned to space under its own power. Maybe I’ll get to see those moon bases and Mars colonies yet!
Here are a few screenshots I took from my phone as I watched live streaming coverage of the launch this afternoon (and really, how amazing a sentence is that?):
Just over a minute into flight.

At left, the second-stage engine firing; at right, the first stage’s re-entry rockets firing.
More than any aspect of this launch, this blew my mind.

They briefly lost the signal from the ship where the first stage was to land, alas!
But they got it back to show the first stage having successfully landed. At right,
our astronauts in their capsule.

Second stage separation.

The second stage falls farther and farther behind. Ahead, Earth orbit and ISS rendezvous!

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