More than 200 miles above the earth, hurtling at 17,500 mph, a privately owned cargo capsule is preparing to deliver groceries to the International Space Station.
Assuming all goes well today and tomorrow, the docking of SpaceX’s Dragon could help restore what America lost when the last space shuttle flight ended in July: a door into outer space.
Since then, the United States has depended on other countries to resupply the orbiting laboratory. America now depends on Russia, of all countries, to carry U.S. astronauts into orbit. That may not be a national humiliation, but it’s also no tribute to the staying power of a country that was sending its citizens to the moon 40 years ago.
SpaceX, which launched this week’s trial mission, has gotten the jump on other private space ventures. If the California-based company delivers the goods Friday, it will win a $1.6 billion NASA contract to lug cargo to the space station over the next five years.
SpaceX would then become the first commercial enterprise with an independent grip on space flight. The company hopes to be launching humans into orbit in a few years.
Competitors are not far behind. Several – including Blue Origin of Kent – are also aiming to send astronauts into space. Paul Allen is helping fund a slew of ideas, including asteroid mining and an immense aircraft from which rockets could be launched.
This doesn’t exactly augur the privatization of outer space. The proliferation of these ventures might be described as a gold rush without the gold. Or maybe a rush for gold buried by the government.
The $1.6 billion behind that cargo contract is public money. The space station itself is the creation of the governments of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. Its chief purpose is basic scientific research, not the kind of thing that turns a quick profit.
U.S. presidents and some congressional leaders talk about returning to the moon and ultimately sending astronauts to Mars, but there won’t be any initial public offerings on those enterprises, either.
Some forms of exploration carry risks too great and rewards too distant to attract private capital. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be undertaken: Ask Ferdinand and Isabella.
By handing off orbital launches to private companies, NASA hopes to focus more exclusively on deep-space missions. With any luck, private competition will lead to cheaper and more efficient paths to orbit, freeing up money for other priorities.
At a minimum, private space-faring companies promise to maintain engineering teams, astronauts-in-training, specialized technicians and other human infrastructure that might otherwise have vanished after the shuttles became museum pieces. America will remember how to get into space and come back.