South African-born tech innovator Elon Musk has a lot on his plate as his company, Tesla, prepares to launch its third electric car. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE BLAKE
Elon Musk . Picture: REUTERS/MIKE BLAKE

FOR future historians, I’m pretty sure the most memorable thing this year happened on Monday last week, December 21, when Elon Musk’s dream of a reusable rocket came true.

For those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend SpaceX’s webcast of its ORBCOMM-2 launch where I’ve set the linked YouTube video to the last quarter when the bulk of the rocket lands safely, and SpaceX’s team of young engineers go wild. A better view of the landing taken from helicopter is also available on YouTube.

While this story wasn’t ignored by mainstream media, it was largely overrun by the hype blitz for the latest Star Wars movie — much as media coverage of Viking 1’s landing on Mars in 1976 was obliterated by the original Star Wars movie.

People’s tendency to overconsume fiction, thereby training themselves to jump to clichéd conclusions and consider reality to be unrealistic is a favourite rant of mine, which I’ll try not bang on about too much in my column.

Truth is far stranger and more interesting than fiction. I’ve no intention of watching The Force Awakens since I’m pretty sure the plot can’t compete with the tenacity shown in the face of adversity by South African-born Musk and his Falkon 9 team. For those who missed SpaceX’s previous botched attempt to land a rocket on a platform out at sea, watch this video.

The sight of a rocket landing like it takes off harkens back to an earlier era of science fiction, and I predict reboots of the 1930s franchises Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers coming again soon.

Besides returning the bulk of the rocket for reuse — cutting the cost of future launches by $60m — another impressive achievement of the Falcon 9 flight shown in the SpaceX webcast was to put all 11 satellites required for a commercial communications constellation into orbit with one rocket launch.

Musk — who has now firmly established himself as the Thomas Edison of our age by founding not just SpaceX, but also electric car maker Tesla and before that internet payment system PayPal — has a far bigger ambition for his reusable rockets that just making communications satellites cheaper to place in low-earth orbit. His ultimate goal is to colonise Mars.

Websites like geekwire are already speculating on what Musk’s next step will be. However this story continues, it’s bound to be a lot more interesting and less predictable than Star Wars.