On June 7, SpaceX successfully launched its first Falcon 9 rocket into orbit. While NASA’s plans for manned spaceflight are up in the air (if you’ll pardon the pun), SpaceX has been working on the Falcon 9 (and it’s predecessors) on a purely commercial basis. It is possible that this rocket may be one of the replacements for the Space Shuttle as a way for the US to launch astronauts into space. It has been designed to be man-rated and SpaceX has proposed its own Dragon astronaut capsule to NASA.
The company was founded by Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal, and it now employs more than 1,000 people. Perhaps its greatest claim to credibility as the face of commercial space travel is the fact that it has been profitable for the past three years. In another telling detail, SpaceX say that they developed the entire Falcon 9 for less than the cost of the Ares I mobile service tower.
I have mixed emotions about the state of manned space flight in the west. I’m a proponent of space exploration. It is one of the most sublime human achievements, a noble alternative to conflict and it primes the pump of science, innovation and technology. Plus it’s cool. So I want NASA to be at the cutting edge. Actually doing it. And, right now, it’s not because Project Constellation was cancelled (like many other initiatives over the past 20 years). On the other hand, SpaceX show that progress is still possible. Perhaps the commercial world will succeed where politically-constrained state activity has (temporarily) failed. I just hope that SpaceX’s success doesn’t become a fig leaf for America’s lack of ambition.