SpaceX’s efforts to launch astronauts into orbit have suffered various delays, totaling about four years, including two catastrophic explosions of its Falcon 9 rocket and nagging safety concerns about the Dragon capsule riding on top.
Having a reliable American system would mean NASA astronauts no longer need to piggyback on Russian rockets and spacecraft, as they have since the aging U.S. space-shuttle fleet was retired nine years ago. Looking ahead, NASA and White House officials envision emphasizing deep-space exploration as part of a commitment to relying on similar corporate-government teams. Those would include company-led endeavors, with relatively limited federal oversight, taking astronauts to the moon as soon as 2024 and later to Mars or beyond.
Along those lines, Mr. Musk’s team has proposed a mammoth rocket carrying a companion deep-space craft—partly stainless steel and reaching some 40 stories together—intended to eventually transport large numbers of passengers. So far, NASA has committed $135 million to help develop the portion that could serve as a lunar lander.
Some longtime NASA watchers see the current mission as a crucial steppingstone, perhaps as significant in some ways as the Gemini missions of the mid-1960s that paved the way for the Apollo moon landings. But this time, making the government “a customer rather than operator is as astonishing as it is bold for NASA,” said Mark Albrecht, a former White House space adviser and retired senior industry executive. “NASA will take the blame for failure and allow SpaceX to receive most of the glory of success.”
Elon Musk will probably be remembered as the father of electric vehicles and simultaneously the father of interplanetary travel. However, while he is an engineering genius, his expertise in getting other people to pay for his aspirational dreams is truly worthy of praise. Tesla might be a battery company, but it would not exist without carbon credits where its competitors fund its expansion.
SpaceX has notched a number of firsts, such as reusable rockets. That has encouraged government support which would have been unthinkable before the Space Shuttle was mothballed.
The success of privately funded space travel is very reminiscent of the success Craig Venter had with sequencing the human genome. His faster and cheaper methodology far outstripped the lumbering bureaucracy of the state funded effort.
The big question for future innovation is in how effective the introduction of private capital into the drive to generate fusion energy will have. The ITER project is due to be completed this decade. That will confirm net gain from fusion. It is quite possible private enterprise will beat it to the punch.
Regardless of whether tomorrow’s launch is successful, the trend towards space exploration, colonization and mining is undeniable. This year, a Japanese team was the first ever to complete an asteroid mining operation when they successfully returned the small payload to earth.
The concurrent trend of care for the environment, looking after our home planet and climate concerns suggest there will be a ready market for off-worlding the dirtiest of human developmental activity. It might take a century but the moon and Mars are the logical next destinations for regulatory arbitrage for the most polluting of practices.Back to top