If all goes as planned, sometime this morning a spacecraft will blast off from its launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and ride a fiery plume of contrails upward through the pre-dawn darkness to begin a two-week journey to the International Space Station and back. But the flight won't be just another NASA resupply mission. Instead, the Falcon 9 rocket and its unmanned Dragon cargo capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX for short — will be the first commercially owned and operated vehicle ever to rendezvous with the station's orbiting astronauts.
In that respect, today's launch marks what could be the dawn of a new era of commercial spaceflight, one that has the potential to make travel to and from low-Earth orbit, where the space station resides, as routine as a shuttle flight between New York and Baltimore. Within a few years, SpaceX officials hope to be flying hundreds of paying customers on suborbital jaunts and returning them safely to Earth. Within a few decades, they dream of profitably ferrying space tourists to Mars and back.
Such ambitions may sound like science fiction to people who remember the world's amazement when John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth aboard the Friendship 7 space capsule in 1962, or when Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon seven years later during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Those pioneering feats were the culmination of a massive U.S.-sponsored research and development program led by NASA that consumed the energies of tens of thousands of scientists and engineers and billions of dollars in government funding.
Yet magnificent as they were, those flights never made a dime for the government. But now private companies like SpaceX, Alliant Techsystems, Orbital Sciences Corporation and others are proposing to build on the technology that made those historic achievements possible and turn space travel into a profit-making enterprise. Of course there are enormous risks involved. But if their ideas even today seem far-fetched, the evidence of history would seem to bear out their aspirations.
It's worth recalling that the great voyages of the Age of Discovery — those of Columbus, Magellan Vasco de Gama and others — all were initially financed by the governments of fabulously wealthy European monarchs. The story of Spain's Queen Isabella giving Columbus her jewelry to outfit the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria has been taught to elementary school students for generations. But within the span of only a few decades, the continent's great trading houses had far surpassed royal patrons as sponsors of exploration, sending ships financed by their investors to ports in every corner of the globe.
More recently, America's fledgling airline industry was able to get off the ground in the 1920s only because government-subsidized postal routes ensured them a steady source of revenue. Flying the mail gave private firms and aircraft manufacturers an incentive to develop faster, more reliable planes that could carry passengers as well as packages. Within a decade, the support they received from the government enabled them to establish the first regularly scheduled domestic airline flights between cities, and then to extend their operations to cities around the world.
But will enough people actually want to joy ride in space to make commercial spaceflight profitable? That's essentially what companies will be offering, at least at first, because aside from the space station, which isn't exactly set up for tourists, once you get up to low-Earth orbit there's really no place to go except back down again, sort of like a glorified hop in the Jenny biplane flown by the barnstorming pilots of the 1920s. And even a short, sub-orbital jaunt will be very expensive. Virgin Galactic, which has signed up celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks for future flights aboard its SpaceShipTwo, a winged craft that looks like a smaller, streamlined version of the Space Shuttle, plans to charge $200,000 per person for a two and a half hour excursion that includes six minutes of weightlessness.
Movie stars can afford those prices, perhaps, but for the rest of us who are not hedge fund managers or corporate CEOs, nearly half a million bucks for an afternoon getaway with one's sweetie is a bit steep. But again, it's worth recalling that Hollywood celebrities were among the first commercial airline passengers, too, and their embrace of air travel helped set the style for everyone else. What started as a fad became a trend and then a necessary convenience for certain segments of the upper crust, and eventually economies of scale pushed prices down to a level ordinary people could afford.
That's clearly the trajectory companies like SpaceX envision as the future of commercial spaceflight as well. If today's cargo launch is successful — the Dragon capsule will offload about 1,400 pounds of food, clothing and other supplies to the astronauts and pick up a similar load of trash that's been accumulating at the station — the company plans to develop a more advanced version of the vehicle that can ferry crew members as well as cargo back and forth.
Success would help validate NASA's decision to give up its manned space flight capacity in the short term in favor of developing the capacity for deep space travel. But even if today's launch isn't a success, it seems inevitable that sooner or later someone is going to figure out how to make private space flight viable and a benefit to humanity. In the relatively short history of aviation, the flights that failed were often just as important as the ones that succeeded in setting the course of future developments. Today's SpaceX's launch pushes back what has been called the final frontier of space exploration another notch and brings us a step closer to a future we are still struggling to imagine.