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Space Past Failure: The Musk of Zero

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Until this week, it was space 3, Elon Musk, zero. One Falcon 9 Rocket exploded shortly after takeoff, and two that flew as hoped failed to land as intended. But then that indefatigable blend of dreamer and engineer tried again. He not only rocketed past those prior failures to the space beyond, he brought the rocket safely back, a feat never before achieved. So it is that courtesy of Elon Musk, yesterday was today, but today is tomorrow.

We will return to a celebration of Musk's triumph and its implications shortly, but first, let's reflect on the antecedent, and perhaps unavoidable disasters.

We've all experienced them, at some order of magnitude. Despite the snark and derision that at times seem to dominate the discourse here in cyberspace, everybody projecting that "haughtier than thou" persona has failed. We were told just so in the lyrics of a great song: everybody plays the fool some time; there's no exception to the rule.

But as we recall our particular foibles, failures, faux pas, and outright disasters, wincing with the recollections -- the news invites us to consider if any of them even comes close to trashing a Falcon 9 Rocket, valued at roughly $62 million? That horrifying notion -- watching more wealth than most of us ever even dream of accumulating in a lifetime -- blow to smithereens is the true beauty in this week's news. For triumph resided in the space past that disaster. And the disaster did not just happen once; it happened, in variations on a theme, three times.

Culture and its iconography evolve. The ancient Greeks gave us Icarus, as a reprimand against hubris, and a rejoinder to trespassing in the realm of gods. Christianity gave us a deity who joined us down here, and then ascended, creating an intimate link between disparate realms. This modern age of reason gives us the limits we choose, and our culture gives us, in the guise of Icarus, pioneers of science who survive the crash, and try again.

In the realm of cultural icons, my musings turn to Zorro. I bet most of us thoroughly enjoyed The Mask of Zorro; I certainly did. I like Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas just fine, but frankly, Catherine Zeta-Jones stole the show for me. In any event, the message of the rollicking adventure was clear enough. Anyone willing to wear the mask could be Zorro. There was nothing of innate privilege about Zorro. There was courage, and cause and honor. The mask belonged to whomever was willing to serve what it symbolized.

Unlike Zorro, Musk is a real person, but he is something of a symbol now, too. He reminds of what Kipling said about disaster, and demonstrates that triumph is apt to reside in the space beyond.

Any of us, and in particular our children, might take us from the tomorrow that is today, to tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Such advances need not depend on fortunes or technology. They might reside in the realm of humanism and empathy, as was true of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. As we look out on a world that sings its holiday hymns of peace and good will, and all too often tramples those hollow hopes into the dusts of many lands -- it is the human condition that most needs a flight to the next level. As every day, another source of insight and ideas abandons these badlands of social media for the abuse its avatar-shielded anonymities foment, it is the human bond that warrants the attention of new-age engineers.

Those who will get us there, and to the stars, assuming anyone does, whether flying a rocket or pushing a rickshaw, whether with technology or merely tenderness, will certainly fail along the way. Triumph resides in the space past disaster, and is perhaps nowhere else to be found.

This is, of course, much easier to talk about than live through. The moment of failure always feels like forever. Elon Musk surely spent forever in the ruin of three multi-million dollar rockets. And then, forever passed -- as it does for us all, however unlikely a given moment may make that seem. Much, then, depends on holding on, and reaching out one more time. Much depends on knowing that everyone else has spent forever in just some such moment.

Elon Musk is the Musk of zero no more. He prevailed. The prize of triumph was waiting for him, as for us all, in the space past failure.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital