That’s basically the whole newsletter this week, truth be told. The rest is just a slightly more articulate elaboration of that sentiment.
Let’s get this out of the way so I can get back to talking about SPAAAAAAAAAACE!—
This is Across the Sundering Seas, a newsletter by Chris Krycho (that’s me!), which comes out mostly every Saturday (I take off one week a month and last week Buttondown had problems), talking generally about things I’ve been studying and reading (but sometimes, like this week, just about things I’m ridiculously excited about). You can always unsubscribe if you need one fewer newsletter to read… or you can forward this to friends if you think they need one more newsletter to read!
Today saw the successful launch of the Crew Dragon Demo 2 flight: the last thing required for NASA’s first Commercial Crew vehicle to be rated for continuous crewed flights. This is, not to overstate it, a huge deal. It’s obviously a huge victory for SpaceX, the company building these rockets. It’s also a huge deal for NASA: America has not had local launch capability since we permanently grounded the Space Shuttle back in 2011.
(The Shuttle had a good run: 30 years is a long time, and in many ways it’s amazing there were as few accidents as there were given the length of time it was running and the complexity of the vehicle.)
My daughters and my wife and I all watched the live stream of the launch, and I had tears in my eyes watching it. From the time I was a child, I’ve loved space. For the longest time, I wanted to be an astronaut. (In fourth grade, to my lasting shame and horror, I misspelled the word in a city-wide spelling bee, my brain in the fog of a really terrible cold. The frustration was deep.) When I went to college, I initially intended to lean into astrophysics, though I ended up doing the general physics degree instead. And, being honest, if SpaceX or similar companies hired software engineers remotely… I’d have a very hard time not applying for those, even though I genuinely love my current job.
Silicon Valley prides itself on innovation. But in general, Silicon Valley’s innovation for the last few decades has been high on ad tech and low on genuine ambition. Even as meaningful and valuable and yes, genuinely transformative as some of the changes of the internet era and the mobile device era have been… there’s a reason for the popularity of the “____. You invented ____” meme, even if it genuinely doesn’t tell the whole story.
There are many ways I could qualify the claim: that social networks and ad-powered tech have enabled good things (even with the bad); that many of the incremental changes that come via things like Uber and Lyft may genuinely be good economically in the long term even if they’re painful in the short term; that the massive disintermediation of the media allows newsletters and podcasts like mine to exist, and to be meaningful to an audience I could probably never have found in a pre-digital age; that things like ordering food online and being able to find a new job from home, and being able to work from home are especially important in the context of the current pandemic…
But at the end of the day, even if every one of those qualifications are right, and even if all the other things Silicon Valley has prided itself on getting up to are legitimate goods [if you’ve read this newsletter for more than a couple weeks you know what I think about that]… none of them is a patch on let’s put humans in space and more than that let’s go to the moon again and even more than that yes, we know colonizing Mars is ridiculously hard; let’s figure out how to do it anyway. SpaceX has some serious challenges to solve. Elon Musk is one of them, in many ways. But I admire the ambition to do something besides just make some more money in another [insert all those qualifiers above] internet-smartphone startup. I’ve never teared up over a new social media company launch. I did tear up at seeing a crewed space craft launch today.
That a crewed SpaceX launch hit me emotionally doesn’t absolve us of the need to invest in enabling home economies, or to deal with massive problems of structural and personal racism, or to help the most vulnerable in our society—from the poor to the unborn to the disabled to the harassed and abused. Indeed, it complicates things a great deal: I have no idea what a body politic and economic would look like if it supported both home economies and going to space, both genuine invention and poverty relief.
But it would be good. We should figure it out.