At approximately 1645 GMT today a space capsule splashed down in the Pacific off the Baja California coast. While capsules have been splashing down in oceans since 1961, this is the first time a privately funded, commercially operational one has. Dragon, the name given to the capsule, and it’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, were designed, built, owned, and operated by SpaceX, a private commercial space firm founded and run by PayPal founder Elon Musk.
Far from being a one-off demonstration, Dragon is scheduled to make two more operational flights this year, and ten more flights over the next three years. Mr. Musk and his investors aren’t doing this because it’s really neat, but to make money. What was once the exclusive province of governments is now entering private hands.
SpaceX isn’t the only one at the table. Orbital Sciences Corp., a major player in commercial space launch and missile defense, is scheduled to put their supply vehicle into orbit later this year. While not reusable, their Cygnus spacecraft also promises a commercially viable orbital capability. And that’s not all. SpaceDev recently completed the first flight tests of their Dreamchaser orbital shuttle. So among the non-government space programs, we have one with flown hardware, one with built hardware to be flown soon, and one well along on development. No other private venture is anywhere close. And let’s not forget Scaled Composites, winner of the Ansari X-Prize, and developer of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. They have their own plans for an orbital craft, and have started construction on the carrier aircraft for their Stratolaunch system.
It’s not by accident that all four are American companies. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk emigrated from South Africa to the United States, because “It is where great things are possible”. Not only is this the place where great things are possible, it’s where millions of Americans everyday make great things happen, and the place that millions more aspire to live. Capable people don’t come here for government programs. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find the child of Ethiopian immigrants piloting a commercial spacecraft in twenty years.
The movers and shakers behind the commercial space industry have big plans. Given their record and determination, I’m not going to bet against them. As Americans, we’ve been at our best when we have frontiers to conquer. Most of the time it takes the resources of government to blaze the trail, but now private companies can, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “Set sail on this new sea”.