Up and Away! Space X making history
A failure would certainly not have killed private space ventures, but the Falcon sure looked good taking off from the Cape.
If all goes as planned, the first private spacecraft will dock at the International Space Station on Thursday. It will be a historic moment for all humanity in mastering new ways to break the bounds of Earth and tap the ingenuity of commercial companies for space exploration.
The space capsule, known as Dragon, and the rocket that launched it Tuesday, called Falcon 9, were completely built by a private firm, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. - or SpaceX.
NASA hired the California-based firm to become a "space taxi" for the delivery of supplies and people to the orbiting lab. The company is one of two so far lined up to take over the government's now-mundane role of putting objects into low orbit. These private launches will replace the space shuttle program that ended last year and help end an American dependency on Russian rockets to reach the space station.
For more than half a century, NASA has been a marvel of science and engineering. But like many risk-taking ventures done initially by government, the time is ripe for the private sector to bring efficiency and new ideas to space projects. Christopher Columbus's voyages to the new world were paid for by a queen, but it was private business that fully settled the Americas.
NASA still has a role in the riskiest ventures, such as human and robotic exploration of other planets, that require massive investments and long lead times. Basic science still needs government funding.
But private firms, in competing for both government and commercial contracts, have strong incentives to reduce costs and invent new technologies. SpaceX, for example, claims it can deliver astronauts to the space station at a third of the price now charged by Russia.
Unfortunately, manned missions by SpaceX and other firms to the space station are still a few years away. But the promise of lower cost launches as well as ending our dependence on hitching rides from the Russians will make the wait worthwhile.