Saturday, May 5, 2012

~ Love Letter to SpaceX ~

SpaceX celebrated its 10-year anniversary in March 2012. The next few years and the next decade in particular will be Very Interesting Times as the fledgling U.S. commercial space industry spreads its wings and comes into its own. I expect SpaceX to lead the way. 

A few years ago I realized what retiring the space shuttle fleet means: Loss of the ability to launch astronauts from U.S. soil - without a viable replacement! I considered this particularly embarrassing at a time when other countries like China, India and Russia were and are working to get more people into space, not fewer.

I needn't have worried. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk was way ahead of me. He also has wealth, vision and the ability to attract top talent to step in where the U.S. government is declining to go. What I had once viewed as an unforgivable government policy blunder now looks very different to me: The end of the space shuttle program and an apparent lack of interest by government policy makers to keep U.S. human space flight capability intact has allowed private commercial companies to take center stage. No longer players on the sidelines of NASA, private space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and many more are now emerging to do what NASA no longer can do without using Russia's Soyuz rockets: Rotate personnel on and off the ISS and fly supply and science missions to the ISS that can also pick up on-orbit science results and waste material.

SpaceX, in fact, is due to make its first supply delivery to the ISS later this month, a demonstration mission under NASA contract. A Dragon capsule atop SpaceX's flagship rocket, the Falcon 9 (named after the Millennium Falcon) is scheduled to launch on May 19 from Cape Canaveral. If this mission is successful, SpaceX will become the first private space company to dock with the International Space Station. In 2010, SpaceX was the first private company to launch its Dragon capsule into orbit and recover it successfully. 

While docking with the ISS will be a huge achievement to celebrate, SpaceX has set its sights on destinations way beyond low-Earth orbit. Elon Musk's goal is to make life multi-planetary, starting with the establishment of a permanent human presence on Mars as soon as possible, i.e., within 10-15 years. This is an ambitious timeline for sure. Yet consider that we have had the technology to go to Mars and establish a colony there for at least 20 years. What we didn't have was leadership, will and determination to make it happen. If we wait for those who hold NASA's purse strings to want to boldly go where no one has gone before, we will continue to be disappointed.

When I listen to Elon Musk talk about making life multi-planetary, I finally, finally feel like I no longer live on a planet among a species so mired in its past and present that it cannot envision nor implement ways to create its own future and claim its destiny among the stars. 

Click here to see a gallery of SpaceX's major milestones over the last decade.

Below is a picture of the Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon capsule payload on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, as it successfully underwent a firing test on April 30, 2012:

Photo credit: SpaceX

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