I’m normally not a big watcher of rocket launches, but SteelyKid was home sick yesterday, and happened to be bored and demanding right about at the time scheduled for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch, so I pulled up the live feed and we watched it together. It was totally worth it, because when the rocket cleared the tower, she jumped up and down in delight and yelled “It’s launching! It’s ROCKET SCIENCE, people!”

(She also did some heckling of the live chat running next to the streaming video, which was unsurprisingly a bit of a shitshow. Again, mostly worth it to hear SteelyKid talking back to the people who were claiming the whole thing was a fake…)

SteelyKid was super fired up, and decided on a Space theme when picking her clothes for today, so add a tally mark in the “inspiring the youth” column.

While I’m a little jaded about space stuff in general, I have to admit that the simultaneous booster landing was a pretty amazing spectacle. I mean, it’s basically a live-action version of classic sci-fi cover art:

Falcon Heavy boosters landing after the first test launch. Photo from SpaceX Twitter feed.

A lot of people are iffy on the stunt of sending a car into orbit, but I have no problem with that. The most likely alternative is launching a big lump of concrete or some such, so why not have a little fun with it? Some semi-useful collection of simple scientific instruments would’ve been better, sure, but SpaceX is a commercial operation, and they’re entitled to do a little advertising.

Which brings me around to the one thing I did have a problem with, which is the traditional Internet libertarian dunking on NASA any time a commercial space operation does something cool. The passing tweet that sort of crystallized this for me (though I don’t recall the exact source, and don’t care enough to look for it) was something like “Makes you wonder what Boeing and Lockheed and NASA have been doing for the last forty years, doesn’t it?”

And the answer is “Not really,” because I know what they’ve been doing: They’ve been doing what they were paid to do. They spent years doing shuttle launches, and launching satellites, and putting nuclear-powered robot cars on the surface of Mars, where they’ve succeeded better than any of the designers might’ve hoped.

I’m not trying to disparage SpaceX’s achievements, here: they’ve done amazing things, and I’m very impressed. But they’re not remotely in the same business as NASA at this point. They’re doing what they’re doing in large part because Elon Musk is a True Believer who has decided that this is something he’s willing to throw flipping great wodges of cash at to make it happen, and that’s wonderful.

If Boeing or Lockheed or NASA decided that simultaneously landing rockets was a Thing they wanted to spend significant resources on, I have absolutely no doubt that they could make that happen. They haven’t been asked to do that in a consistent way (there have been vague pie-in-the-sky concepts thrown around at various points, but never any sustained effort), and they damn sure haven’t been paid for it, and they’re not in the business of throwing money at causes because they Believe.

And, you know, I totally agree that it would be a more interesting world if they were in that business. Or, better yet, if we as a society were more willing to devote significant resources from tax dollars and the like to developing more awesomely cool rockets and all the many other things NASA does. That’s not where we are, though, and I get a little annoyed with people slagging them off for not doing something that they were never hired for.

That’s especially true when you consider all the things they have been paid to do: all the robot probes visiting Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto, the Hubble telescope and other orbiting observatories, the GPS system and other practical satellite systems, etc. They’ve focused on the science science side of things, not engineering new rockets, and that was a reasonable decision given the money available to them. It’s also been wonderfully successful, something we shouldn’t lose sight of just because a true-believer billionaire put a car in orbit.