The successful capture and berthing of the SpaceX Dragon capsule is cause for celebration. The clockwork precision of the flight, with no trace of glitch or gremlin, speaks well for the technical competence of Elon Musk and his crew atmSpace Exploration Technologies.

This is a step forward for commercial space and very good news for the future of ISS, NASA’s future space exploration plans, and, of course, the SpaceX company. It is even good news for SpaceX competitors, such Boeing and Sierra Nevada, whose own case is boosted by the proof that commercial companies can deliver.


Today’s accomplishment will go a long way toward convincing Congress of the value of commercial space – and yet, convincing Congress (and some elements at NASA) should not have been this hard. ISS has been serviced before by quasi-commercial (though largely state-owned) Russian and European enterprises. The fact that there was so much resistance to allowing American companies to compete with Energia and Arianespace is a sad commentary on our current Congress and its lack of faith in American private enterprise. Seeing is believing, the saying goes, but St. Paul said that faith is evidence of things unseen. Today’s political leaders seem to have faith in nothing but themselves, but it will be hard for anyone to oppose commercial ISS missions after this.

So, why only two cheers, then? Because, as heretical as it might sound to say this, SpaceX is not the most important act in commercial space. SpaceX will ensure NASA’s access to the International Space Station, enable Bigelow Aerospace to proceed with its own space station plans, and perhaps even take humans to Mars, but it will be the suborbital companies like Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace that open up space for the rest of us.

In 1974, the influential and widely circulated Business Week ran a story on Seymour Cray and his supercomputer, which it called “the machine that will change the world.” That same month, Popular Electronics, a small hobbyist publication which almost no one read, ran a cover story on the Altair 8800. Not “the machine that will change the world,” but “the computer you can build.” The Altair was not a powerful computer, and almost nobody took it seriously, except the people who wanted one – and there were a lot of them. Of course, we know which machine ultimately changed the world.

Reusable suborbital spacecraft will also change the world. They will enable large numbers of people to build and fly experiments, and to fly in space themselves. Dramatic reductions in  launch costs, not increases in capability, are what will truly open the space frontier, and those cost reductions are easier to achieve on the low end. We don’t expect a lot of people to agree with these statements. Many people won’t understand them at all, just as most people didn’t understand the importance of microcomputers when they first appeared in the 1970’s.

Even many people who call themselves “NewSpace” advocates don’t get it. A good example is the Space Frontier Foundation, which took control of the Suborbital Flight Experiment Workshop we developed and is now converting it into a seminar on how to build payloads to fly on traditional science platforms like ISS and weather balloons. Much like the (hypothetical) guy who showed up at Steve Jobs’s garage with a COBOL program on a stack of punch cards, they think they get it but they don’t.

That having been said, it was very important for everyone in commercial space, including the suborbital companies, for SpaceX to succeed. There were too many people out there, including legislators and investors, who who waiting to point fingers and say, “If Elon Musk couldn’t do it, nobody can.”

That statement is, of course, nonsense, especially when the value of “it” varies greatly from one company to another. This irrational attitude was fomented by some of the more rabid SpaceX fanboys whose mantra was, “If Elon Musk can’t do it…” — although not by the professionals at SpaceX, who know better. That overenthusiastic cheerleading had the unfortunate effect of tying the fate of the entire commercial space industry to the success of SpaceX on this one mission, which never should have happened. Fortunately, the Dragon capsule performed flawlessly, but still, the stakes were higher than they should have been. We didn’t need SpaceX to succeed today, but we couldn’t afford for them to fail. For that reason, we give SpaceX two solid cheers.


Written by Astro1 on May 25th, 2012 , SpaceX

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    n batteate commented

    That’s nice we (private enterprise) can supply the ISS. But it doesn’t change the fact that this administration neutered NASA. We’re a country of goals and circling the block is nice but we’ve got places to go. The NASA website doesn’t even have a human lunar or Mars plan highlighted anymore. Click on Altair and you get some mumbo jumbo. Think about it, what Dragon did today was built on tech over 50 years old. I think it’s great an American company has done something nations haven’t even done but I guess I think this country needs more that. We need a lofty goal that excites people, employs people and inspires students to learn more in school then how to text their friends during class.

    May 25, 2012 at 3:32 pm
      admin commented

      Do you think no one was inspired by the Altair 8800 and its successors — the Apple II, the Macintosh, the IBM PC, etc.?

      Do you think Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Google don’t employ people?

      It would be sad to think we’ve reached the point where only big government programs can inspire people.

      May 25, 2012 at 4:05 pm
        nbatteate commented

        You totally missed the point. The National aeronautics and space administration is or was a means to empower a national movement into space. It helped fuel massive employment opportunities across the country. It helped inspire students with a real visible and tangible results. The people at Space X have every right to be proud of what they have and are accomplishing but compared to a reved up NASA program it pales in comparison. Perhaps the silver lining here is the hope NASA learns something from the little train that could.

        July 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm
          admin commented

          If NASA was a means to empower national movement into space, it failed, because almost no one has moved into space.

          Yours are echoing the sort of comments that were made about microcomputers, which paled in comparison to the government’s high-speed computer initiative….

          Last year alone, Apple created 20,000 new jobs.

          NASA has a total of 18,000 employees.

          July 17, 2012 at 8:17 pm
            nick batteate commented

            What’s with you an apple? You own stock? You keep comparing apples and orange space ships.It’s nice to see NASA back in the manned space game again all be it at a snails pace. I said, if you read carefully, that NASA WAS a means to empower a national movement. You tell me, What kept you up at night, man landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 or the latest gizmo from Apple or microsoft. Great achievements all but in terms of fueling national pride and stimulating peoples imagination and achievement in school it’s not even close.

            December 17, 2014 at 2:53 pm
            Astro1 commented

            Why would you desire human space exploration to proceed at a “snail’s pace”?

            NASA has never been out of “the manned space game,” as you put it. It’s had astronauts onboard ISS continuously for more than a decade now. But the number of astronauts NASA flies every year has decreased, dramatically, since the 1980’s. Once, NASA flew as many as 36 astronauts each year. Today, it’s down to 6. If NASA continues in the current direction, that number will drop further.

            The “movement” you refer to is slamming the brakes on human spaceflight. NASA is not enabling the nation to move into space. There are no permanent human settlements in space, no orbital factories, and the only private citizens who visit the International Space Station are guests of Russia, not the US.

            Great achievement does not mean reliving the past. The P-51 Mustang was a great achievement during World War II. Rebuilding Mustangs today is an interesting hobby, not a great national achievement. Apollo may have been a great achievement in the 1960’s, but the 1960’s were half a century ago. It’s time for America to dare great things, to try something new — not constantly relive the glories of the past.

            December 17, 2014 at 3:53 pm