For a long time, the government has been responsible for space travel in the United States. That’s about to change.
Government is the appropriate agent for certain forms of collective action: roads, public schools, national defense. It’s also good for big-picture things without immediate financial payoff, like support for the arts or basic scientific research. It makes perfect sense for the government to shoulder the burden for developing the technologies to get us into space, and it will continue to make sense for them to play an active role in astronomical research in space. But for commercial purposes, like launching satellites, it ultimately makes a lot more sense for space travel to be a private-sector enterprise. We’re on the brink of seeing it happen.
SpaceX is a private company founded by Elon Musk, who previously co-founded PayPal and the electric car company Tesla Motors. For a while now, SpaceX has been developing reusable launch vehicles and space capsules. They’ve been awarded a contract from NASA to take over re-supplying the International Space Station after the Shuttle fleet is mothballed next year. And they’ve had one launch that reached orbit, but also a few failures; until yesterday, they hadn’t succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit.
But now they’ve done it. I was watching on live webcam last night as the Falcon 1 rocket launched a Malaysian satellite into orbit.
It’s incredibly exciting, but just the beginning. The idea behind the Shuttle was to make trips to orbit cheap, reliable, and routine; it failed spectacularly on all counts, and NASA’s capabilities and plans for space flight have become somewhat disjointed (while its science missions continue to have amazing success). Hopefully we’re moving past the point where we have to rely on the government to get us to space.