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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Inspiring millions of little Elon Musks

In a photo provided by SpaceX, a Tesla

In a photo provided by SpaceX, a Tesla roadster launched from the Falcon Heavy rocket with a dummy driver named "Starman" heads toward Mars. Credit: Getty Images / Handout

Like millions of space geeks, I was glued to the TV screen last week as the Falcon Heavy lifted off from Cape Canaveral. The explosion of fire. The billowing smoke. The arc traced by the rocket as it sliced through that deep blue sky. All of it spectacular and entrancing.

Then our eyes got wider and our smiles even broader as those two boosters broke away and returned to Earth in synchronized and audacious perfection, sticking their landings smack in the middle of their respective pads back at Cape Canaveral.

And there they proudly stood, defying history and convention, ready to be reused for the next launch planned by Elon Musk, the inventor, engineer, entrepreneur and visionary behind Space X, the company that had just successfully launched the world’s most powerful rocket.

I knew instantly that I had to show a video of the spectacle to my grandson the next morning. He’s 7 years old. I figured he’d be interested.

But I did not expect him to want to watch the video over and over. I lost count at eight. Then I started watching him watching, rapt in his attention. He studied the main screen following the rocket, and the two smaller screens of the boosters descending. He saw the landing legs fan out, the thrusters fire, the flawless touchdowns.

After school, he watched a half-hour video of a Space X launch from last summer, just as intently, equally wordless.

He loves to figure out how things work. Right now, he wants to be an engineer who designs roller coasters. Because he loves roller coasters. It’s what he knows now. He’s got his first one planned out in his head. It involves seven upside-down loops in succession.

But where it goes from here, who knows?

That’s the point with people like Musk. When you push the boundaries of what’s possible, who knows?

The question itself can be scary or inviting. It can make you shy away or draw you in. How you respond says a lot about where you’ll go.

Musk’s greatest achievement might not be the way he’s setting the stage for interplanetary travel and the colonization of Mars, part of the mission of Space X.

It might not be the development of much faster transportation connections between cities, the point of his hyperloop idea to use underground vacuum tubes for high-speed travel.

It might not be the way he’s revolutionizing the auto industry with his Tesla electric cars that have General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin announcing that they’re going to go totally electric, too.

It might not be his work on batteries or his research into the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Musk’s greatest achievement might be kindling the imaginations of millions of little Musks, like my grandson and all those other kids who watched that massively powerful rocket lift off and those two magnificent boosters come back down as if they had been on tethers all along.

Because there’s never been a force in human history more powerful than the curiosity of wanting to know what more is possible.

My grandson started with Legos. Now he’s into roller-coaster kits powered by batteries. One uses only gravity, but it lets him devise his own roller coasters. In his latest, the one sitting on our kitchen table, the track near the top ends abruptly and the little car flies off the edge and lands on another track below, then goes airborne again before landing on a third track and proceeding to the finish. Sometimes the car succeeds in navigating its own little space flight, sometimes it careens off the track and crashes spectacularly.

But, hey, it’s a beta version. He has time to figure it out.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.