Yesterday, at 10:43 in the morning, a Falcon 9 rocket carried a Dragon capsule into a low earth orbit, where it circled the Earth twice before splashing down on target 500 miles off the coast of Southern California. This marked the first time that a private commercial firm has accomplished such a task, joining only a handful of countries (The United States, Russia, China, India, Japan and the European Space Agency) by going into the skies above. By doing so, it has marked the start of a new age in space travel, one that is independent of governmental agencies. Even more astonishing, this comes from a company that was founded a mere eight years ago.
The rise of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) comes during a time of stagnation in space exploration. The last manned mission to the moon occurred in 1972 with Apollo 17, with Skylab crashing down to Earth in 1979 while Russia's Mir Space Station followed in 2001. The American space shuttle was first launched in 1981, heralding in its own age of scientific exploration by launching satellites, conducting repair and resupply missions and generally serving as an orbital laboratory for scientific project, and sees its own mission end early next year with two final flights. Finally, the International Space Station, a testament to international cooperation and scientific endeavor, was launched in 1998, and is scheduled for completion next year. In spite of the numerous accomplishments that NASA and other space agencies have achieved over the last three decades, their efforts have gone unrewarded by the general public and political elements, who see the efforts as a waste of money and time on behalf of the people.
Space and operations in orbit are something that will continue in the near future, and the introduction of a commercial firm is something that will help to supplement the people in orbit. Commercial firms also have the ability to break the monopoly that governments are able to hold on space operations by opening up access to Earth's orbit for not only people, but additional platforms in the skies for businesses and travel.
That future is still something that is far off, and will require an immense amount of preparation, coordination and regulation in order to become fully viable, safe and profitable for interested parties. There is a growing problem with objects in Earth's orbit, which caused collisions and dangerous conditions for astronauts and hardware, while the expense for trips into orbit is high. (SpaceX charges upwards of $43.5 million for up to 3,000 kg) Space is still something outside of the general public, and like any big, complicated, dangerous activity, it'll take a while for the prices to go down to a more affordable level, and for an entire industry to take form to support it.
An independent, forward-thinking and rational commercial future for space allows for a great deal of independence. Companies won’t be constrained by political whims and budget shortfalls, but by economic pressure to succeed amongst a pack of competitors. There will be a regulatory body to keep the conduct of these companies in check (and when you’re talking about the risks of spaceflight, this is something that will be needed), and companies will be able to expand and explore new possibilities and ventures much faster than a governmental body, and the advances that they find and create can translate into new opportunities for those of us on the ground.
As the United States grapples with economic problems, Space should be the next frontier and direction for U.S. business interests to move forward to. Long-term efforts into space bring about the possibilities of incredible exploration, scientific discovery, mineral wealth and virtually unlimited space for growth and real estate. The United States maintains a massive advantage over other countries, and would do well to foster the development of a space industry within the United States to help better its own economy (think of the requirements for skilled labor and jobs that such a line of work requires) and to bring humanity further into the stars.
The futures that have long been seen in science fiction novels, television shows and movies are still a long way off, but the steps taken by SpaceX, and the other private firms that are sure to follow over the next couple of decades make me hopeful for the futures that we might have in orbit and beyond. Maybe, just maybe, within my lifetime, I'll be able to look down on the Earth and smile.