Artist’s conception of the Dragon capsule in orbit….Credit: Space X
When President Obama, on the recommendation of the Augustine Commission, committed to raising the profile of commercial space flight, there were (and are) plenty of skeptics. Many assumed this was a zero-sum game, where if one company or agency wins more contract money, another loses. So the flight on Wednesday morning (December 8, 2010) of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Space X) Falcon 9 rocket had more riding on it than the Dragon space capsule. A failure would not only have damaged the company’s reputation, it could have jeopardized the support for commercial space vehicles in general.
However, Space X pulled off a flawless flight plan of 3 hours 19 minutes, returning the Dragon capsule safely to Earth. While five nations (the U.S., Russia, China, India and the European Union) have launched spacecraft into orbit and successfully recovered the payload, this was the first time it was accomplished by private enterprise.
This is a milestone event, though there are plenty of milestones to go. Space X will continue to refine the Dragon capsule for a launch in spring 2011 that will be in the vicinity of the International Space Station. After that comes docking with the station. Eventually cargo will be transported to the ISS, and much further down the line (years) astronauts will be on board. Space X will probably share the loads with other commercial space companies, but for now it gets the bragging rights.
In the long run, it’s inevitable that commercial interests will become involved with the development of humankind in space, but in the interim there is plenty of room for argument about how much should be done by governments, and how much by private enterprise. The Space X success, to-date, argues strongly that the mix should change sooner rather than later.