The Dragon capsule therefore becomes the first privately owned space vehicle to reach the ISS. This morning the astronauts on the space station opened the capsule and entered it, conducted a quick inspection and found no sign of any problems with the interior, and indeed reported that the capsule had that familiar “new car smell.” So far, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and its Dragon capsule have performed flawlessly — reaching orbit, conducting the maneuvering tests that showed that the capsule could safely be brought near the ISS, and then ultimately delivering the payload.
We now have a private company with the technology and human know-how to put a vehicle into space and haul cargo to an orbiting destination. The Dragon’s successful delivery is a huge step forward toward increased exploration and development of space, in an era where commercial entities will bear an increasingly significant part of the cost — and, not incidentally, will look to reap profit from their investments. With SpaceX leading the way, other companies will not be far behind.
Our governments are running out of money. Programs like space exploration — which don’t pander to particular interest groups and aren’t viewed as “essential” — are easy targets for budget cutters. That means that, if we are to advance in space, commercial entities motivated by profits will have to carry the ball forward.
Today saw a big step in that direction. A company called SpaceX launched its own Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. The rocket is carrying a SpaceX Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station. Because this is the first flight, the supplies are not essential, and the Dragon capsule will need to show its reliability and maneuverability before it will be allowed to get near the ISS. If it passes those tests, however, it will move close to the space station, be snatched from space by a robot arm, and then emptied of its cargo. If the mission is a success, it will be the first of many such deliveries. With the space shuttle program ended, NASA will need to rely on private companies to deliver the goods.
I’m sure there will be some who moan about the intrusion of money-grubbing corporations into the pristine realm of space, but the fact is that capitalism is already there, in the form of countless communications satellites. If space is to be fully explored, profit-seeking risk-takers will need to take the lead. We should all celebrate SpaceX’s achievement and hope for a successful venture that encourages other companies to get into the business of space.