Rocket Launches are PR Ploys for NASA and SpaceX, But They Keep Space Alive

February’s Falcon Heavy launch was tailor-made to gin up excitement. Though not every rocket launch shoots a Tesla Roadster into space, there’s a common thread running through all these events: they’re supposed to get the general public excited about space while getting them interested in the company sending said thing into space.

“Most of the public, they’re not really into hard science. It’s not the thing they’re tuning in for most of the time,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk told an assembly of state governors last last year. “To get the public excited, you’ve really got to get people in the picture. It’s just a hundred times different if there are people in the picture.”

Space journalist Swapna Krishna shares that mindset: presentation matters. She tells Inverse on episode five of I Need Space that the spectacle of rocket launches is more nuanced than we might assume.

“It’s hard to deny SpaceX is doing really impressive things when it comes to bringing down the cost of space travel,” she told hosts Rae Paoletta and Steve Ward. “You can take the good and still notice the bad, it doesn’t have to be one way or another.”

With regard to the Falcon Heavy launch, arguably the biggest space spectacle in recent history, the line between inspirational and irresponsible is especially blurry. Though most of us watched the SpaceX launch misty-eyed, scientists have said the company did not adequately clean the Tesla of bacteria before launching. This puts surrounding space objects — like the entire planet of Mars — at some risk of contamination, should the Tesla ever crash into it.

“I agree with a lot of the arguments against [SpaceX’s] Starman, and even though I think SpaceX is doing great things, there’s also a lot of room for criticism,” Krishna said. “I think we all rolled our eyes a little when we heard what the payload would be — a Roadster. That being said, I did love how much everyone was just enamored of those pictures. That was a really nice spectacle.”

As far as PR stunts go, it’s hard to deny top a sports car in space. But that doesn’t mean other private space companies aren’t trying to compete. It seems Jeff Bezos’s aerospace company Blue Origin, which has been notoriously secretive about its activities, is trying to be a little more transparent with its activities lately. Coincidence? Probably not.

In this unrelenting Olympics for PR supremacy, at least someone watching these rocket launches will get inspired to build space vehicles one day. At least there’s hope for the future.

Check out more from the conversation with Swapna Krishna in the fifth episode of I Need My Space. It’d mean the world to us if you subscribed, rated, and reviewed INMS.