In a year where good news has been incredibly scarce, here’s a ray of sunshine: two astronauts were successfully launched into orbit yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The two veteran astronauts aboard, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are currently orbiting the Earth and will dock with the International Space Station today.
The successful launch yesterday marks two milestones. It’s the first launch of human beings into space from the Kennedy Space Center since 2011, when the last space shuttle mission occurred. More significantly, the launch is a huge step forward in America’s entire approach to spaceflight and space exploration and development. The launch vehicle and “Crew Dragon” capsule carrying the astronauts were designed and built by SpaceX, one of the many private companies that are working to make spaceflight a successful commercial venture.
It’s difficult to overstate how significant this step is. For decades, the space program proceeded on a model where launch vehicles were designed by governmental employees and then built by contractors under “cost plus” contracts. The SpaceX venture represents a radically different approach, in which NASA describes what it wants, says what it will pay, and then leaves it to the private company to design and build the vehicle that complies with the NASA requirements. The decision to yield some of the governmental control, and trust private companies to do the job, is an interesting story, and one for which the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve significant credit.
The new approach has several consequences. For one, it is unquestionably cheaper for taxpayers. In addition, the interplay between private companies looking to control costs while delivering the required product and governmental engineers who have long experience with spaceflight issues is producing innovation and new perspectives on how to solve problems. And finally, the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, demonstrates that commercial spaceflight works. SpaceX is one of many private companies that are making space their mission, and yesterday’s triumph will undoubtedly spur other companies to look to space as a new frontier for investment and commercial activity. If, as many of us hope, spaceflight is to become a routine activity, with expansive space stations and lunar bases and the exploration of Mars as the next steps, the involvement of private investment and private capital will be essential to making that dream a reality.
Yesterday’s launch marks the Era of the Dragon in spaceflight. It’s the first time in history that equipment built by a private company has carried human beings into space. It won’t be the last.