Coburn argues that Musk is making Americans interested in science and continuing the work of Nye and others. NASA|Courtesy Photo

Kendra Coburn is a mathematics junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.

Elon Musk’s aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX made headlines with the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket Feb. 6.

The SpaceX website touts Falcon Heavy as “the most powerful operational rocket in the world,” capable of carrying twice the payload of its closest competitor at one-third of the cost. SpaceX also promises that Falcon Heavy “restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the moon or Mars.”

This is an optimistic promise for the scientific community, as the last manned mission to the moon (Apollo 17) occurred more than 45 years ago in December 1972. Budget cuts and lack of support from the Trump administration have left scientists at NASA and other government-funded facilities clinging to SpaceX’s promise that humankind has not made its last trek into the final frontier.

Various organizations have led dozens of manned and unmanned missions into space in the 45 years since Apollo 17. While a few have gathered fame (or, as in the case of the Challenger mission, infamy) among the public, few have whipped up as much excitement as the Falcon Heavy launch. A large part of the mission’s public relations success may be attributed to Musk’s uniquely cheeky decision to mount his personal Tesla Roadster to the Falcon Heavy rocket, complete with a dummy in the driver’s seat. Perhaps because most of us can’t fathom sending $200,000 up in literal flames, or maybe because we have never encountered something quite so absurd before, Musk’s roadster has captured the effervescent glint of the public’s eye.

Why is there a disconnect between the scientific community’s interest in the Falcon Heavy launch and that of the American public? When it comes to STEM subjects, why are Americans seemingly only interested in the silly and absurd? I propose the nature of television as a source of entertainment is responsible for the American public’s treatment of science as a pop-culture subject. Easy access to basic scientific knowledge was not available to the average American until TV became popular in the 1950s.

Televised science education really began with “Watch Mr. Wizard”, a 30-minute show hosted by Mr. Wizard himself, Don Herbert, from 1951 to 1965, in which Herbert demonstrated experiments for his young viewers to try at home. This Peabody Award-winning series encouraged children to engage with science in a completely new, hands-on way.

In the wake of Herbert’s success, Carl Sagan was next to capture the American public’s imagination with “Cosmos,” a 13-part miniseries that aired in the early 1980s. With his infectious enthusiasm and effortless talent for lecture, Sagan became a kind of “gatekeeper of scientific credibility,” a median between the austere world of science and the hopeful hearts of Space
Age-era Americans.

A decade later, William Sanford Nye, better known as Bill Nye, would earn the adoration of a generation of schoolchildren with his 1993-1998 hit series “Bill Nye, the Science Guy.” You will be hard-pressed to find an American student on our campus who can’t recall the delight felt upon seeing their grade school science teacher pop a Bill Nye tape into the VHS player. Although Bill Nye continues to work with Netflix to create scientific entertainment, he has happily relinquished his title as America’s science teacher to the Internet, which exponentially increased the sharing of scientific knowledge around the world. Today, one can easily find scientific programming targeted toward any age range.

By sending his prized roadster into space, Musk tapped into the American scientific tradition. We are a culture that values confidence, charisma and, above all, flashiness. The fact that the roadster fell out of its planned trajectory within a week of the Falcon Heavy launch is irrelevant to the general public. Musk understands that the sciences can come across as exclusionary to the uninitiated. As the saying goes, if you want somebody’s opinion on something, you have to give it to them. And that cherry red roadster drifting through space is Musk’s way of reminding Americans that it is time to care about science again.

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