If you had been onboard the Dragon capsule last week as it was launched into orbit and then quickly retrieved after a Pacific Ocean splashdown, you would have enjoyed “a very nice ride” according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk. But the occupants of this test flight—the first successful launch and recovery of a pressurized capsule by a commercial space company—were limited to some ballast weights, souvenirs for the crew, and this wheel of Le Brouère cheese. The cheese was sent along as a Monty Python joke. NASA took cheese into space long ago, of course. It looks like this now.
The success of SpaceX’s venture comes just after the conclusion of a debate within government about how to handle the future of space. With the final flight of the U.S. shuttle fleet set for 2011, a new way of doing business in low earth orbit is evolving.
But Congress—and congressional Republicans in particular—have caused some serious launch delays in getting government out of this area of space business. President Barack Obama’s administration proposed a significant shift of funding for day-to-day work toward the private sector last fall, keeping NASA focused on more pie-in-the-sky exploratory missions (so to speak).
Congress resisted the idea. Patriotism and the nobility of the ongoing American commitment to space were much discussed on the floor and in the press. But much of the opposition to scaling back certain parts of the Bush-era Constellation program, which aimed to send astronauts back to the moon and otherwise recapture faded glory, came from members who just happened to have facilities manufacturing or researching those parts in their districts. Members from Utah, in particular, have been keen to make sure that their carefully-crafted bargains to keep heavy-lift rocket building capacity in their state alive are enforced by NASA and the Obama administration.
Space journalist Rand Simberg writes that “any rational analysis, based on SpaceX’s costs to date, would indicate that they are less than a billion dollars away” from a capsule that will carry humans into orbit and back. A billion dollars is still a lot of money to you and me, but it’s nothing in space dollars.
As the U.K.-based Rocketeer blog points out: “The total cost to the US taxpayer for the entire Falcon-9/Dragon development programme to date is in the region of $260 million, or approximately one quarter of the cost of one shuttle flight.” In other words, SpaceX is the cost of one shuttle flight away from being able to provide commercial space services to anyone who wants them. A big customer will be NASA of course, but there are quite a few others out there who want to get to space for fun or for business, including the folks at Bigelow Aerospace who are building a space hotel/space station.
In a few months, the Dragon will be back in space, kitted out with some sharp new solar panels and a more ambitious agenda. Congressmen may be defending their funding turf, but that doesn’t mean views on the role of private providers of space services aren’t changing. “The legislation was being worked out and refined before the SpaceX launch,” says NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Change is hard, and what happened was a pretty big deal for the first year of this being proposed.” She notes that areas with existing NASA-funded facilities stand to gain the most from increased private commercial activity and that existing BigSpace contractors are warming to the idea of more private sector funding—two thoughts that should soothe anxious congressmen. The “private sector makes decisions for smart reasons,” she says, noting that new entrants to the field will seek out places with expertise and workers familiar with the industry.
After much bipartisan and administration celebration of the SpaceX launch, Space Frontier Foundation Executive Director Will Watson said: "NASA is right to celebrate this achievement, as it further proves that their bet on commercial industry as their new partners is going to pay off. American companies can do amazing things when government offers them the chance to perform, rather than trying to compete with them."
But at least for now, government hasn’t bowed out of the competition. Despite the administration's best efforts, Congress chose to continue efforts to build a competitor to SpaceX’s Dragon, restoring funding for a multipurpose crew vehicle into the legislation. Garver says the vehicles are complementary, but also notes that the legislation positions the Orion—which is supposed to be capable of longer-range missions than capsules like the Dragon and will perhaps use some of those Utah rockets—as a “backup.” The vehicle isn’t as far along as SpaceX, and has already cost over an order of magnitude more than the total cost of developing the Dragon.
If there was a single flaw in the Dragon launch, it was that everyone involved seemed shocked by how well it went. Pessimism and skepticism are admirable traits in engineers, for the most part. But Musk, one of the biggest personalities in the commercial space universe, said he was in a state of “semi-shock” after the mission. “I wish I was more articulate,” he said, “but it’s hard to be articulate when your mind’s blown.”
It’s an old saw that an extravagant touchdown dance implies to your opponents you are surprised to find yourself in the endzone. Granted, what SpaceX did last week was an important first. But NASA and other customers will only be ready to load their people into SpaceX’s capsules when no one declares themselves semi-shocked by success anymore.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.