The Greatest Show On Earth

In Big Science by Brian Koberlein

Yesterday an eccentric billionaire launched his electric car into space, and you could watch it live on the internet. 

Elon Musk is nothing if not bold. He is also a master showman, transforming a risky first launch of the Falcon Heavy into a $90 million commercial for his car company. With his big dreams and slick marketing, Musk seems like a character out of science fiction or comic books. But behind the showman is a team of highly skilled workers. They not only do some amazing engineering, they also do some amazing science.

More than 7,000 people work at SpaceX.

We often think of science and engineering as two separate things. Science asks deep questions and expands the horizon of human understanding, while engineering applies scientific understanding to technological problems. But often the line is blurred. Often scientific research requires complex and cutting edge engineering.

For example, at Green Bank Observatory one research project known as Mustang II studies the very cold gas and dust in our galaxy. To do this, the Mustang II detector has to be kept extremely cold. Only 3/10 of a degree above absolute zero. In order to gather data, the research team had to design and build a detector that can remain that cold while mounted on the boom of the 1oo-meter Green Bank Telescope. It’s a difficult piece of engineering, which is part of the reason Mustang II can be finicky and difficult to maintain. Science depends upon engineering.

While many companies just rely on good design and engineering. That isn’t the case for Musk’s companies such as Tesla or SpaceX. In order for electric cars to succeed, we will need to develop more efficient batteries, and that requires new research in material science. New discoveries in artificial intelligence are needed to allow cars to drive themselves. Likewise, SpaceX has an aggressive plan to launch ever more powerful rockets, and that will require more efficient rocket engines with cheaper fuels and lighter materials. These companies aren’t just designing products, they are undertaking scientific research to achieve their goals. Elon Musk understands this, and it allows his companies to pursue goals that are both high risk and high reward.

Musk has made it clear that his long term goal is to put humans on Mars, and that’s going to take more than showmanship. It’s going to take Big Science.