If all goes as planned, the first private spacecraft will dock at the International Space Station on Thursday. It will be a historic moment for all humanity in mastering new ways to break the bounds of Earth and tap the ingenuity of commercial companies for space exploration.
The space capsule, known as Dragon, and the rocket that launched it Tuesday, called Falcon 9, were completely built by a private firm, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – or SpaceX.
NASA hired the California-based firm to become a “space taxi” for the delivery of supplies and people to the orbiting lab. The company is one of two so far lined up to take over the government’s now-mundane role of putting objects into low orbit. These private launches will replace the space shuttle program that ended last year and help end an American dependency on Russian rockets to reach the space station.
For more than half a century, NASA has been a marvel of science and engineering. But like many risk-taking ventures done initially by government, the time is ripe for the private sector to bring efficiency and new ideas to space projects. Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the new world were paid for by a queen, but it was private business that fully settled the Americas.
NASA still has a role in the riskiest ventures, such as human and robotic exploration of other planets, that require massive investments and long lead times. Basic science still needs government funding.
But private firms, in competing for both government and commercial contracts, have strong incentives to reduce costs and invent new technologies. SpaceX, for example, claims it can deliver astronauts to the space station at a third of the price now charged by Russia.
Some space firms plan to operate outside NASA’s bureaucratic orbit, offering rides for tourists or mining asteroids for valuable minerals. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, wants to help humans find a home on other planets, starting with Mars, so they can become a spacefaring civilization. A big leap in private space technology will come with the advent of reusable rockets.
These sort of Star Trek dreams begin with small steps, such as the successful launch of the SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Imagination and inspiration have led each advancement in human mastery over the confines of Earth and the limits imposed by the material universe.
Just 109 years ago, the Wright brothers achieved the first sustained human flight. Now we are witnessing the start of sustained spaceflight with commercial incentives. Each new vision somehow finds its wings.