On May 22, 2012, Space Exploration Technologies, Inc., (SpaceX) launched the first commercial mission to rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station. SSI is pleased to offer our congratulations to both SpaceX and NASA.
As we applaud the accomplishments of the past week, it is useful to reflect upon the long road that brought us to this point. While science fiction writers portrayed commercial spaceflight as early as the 1940s, the first serious proposals for commercial launch were made in the 1960s. Since then, perhaps two to three dozen entrepreneurs, investors and visionaries have attempted to achieve the goal. As usual with most pioneers, they were too early, acting with inadequate resources, and attempting to achieve their visions in the teeth of fierce opposition from entrenched interests in both government and among what has been described as “Old Space” firms. Recently, a colleague described most of us who participated in these efforts as “throwing ourselves on the barbed wire” in order to let those behind in the next wave complete the attack.
While a colorful observation, it no way diminishes the achievement that SpaceX and its partners have accomplished. The average age of the nearly 2000 people employed by SpaceX is about 30. This means half of those people weren’t even alive when the first New Space firms were formed in the early 1980s. In spite of the shortcomings of those early attempts, it is heartening to see that the enthusiasm for commercial spaceflight remains undiminished, and a new generation appears more than prepared to accept the challenges of the future.
Why make such a big deal out of commercial spaceflight? It is because true permanent human space settlement depends on the profit motive for its sustainability. Long ago many of us realized that permanent space settlement depends on a viable economic underpinning as much as on a host of technological advancements. Gerry O’Neill recognized this when he focused on space solar power as an economic rationale for having large numbers of humans settle free space.
It has taken a bit longer for the community as a whole to accept the notion that settlement will be dependent upon private initiative and enterprise more than on lobbying and NASA funding. SpaceX’s success over the last week – no matter how future missions may turn out – is a great step towards providing the means and the motivation we all need to achieve our ends. The fact that so-called Old Space firms are now entering the marketplace is proof of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s maxim: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Nevertheless, the long struggle to privatize access to space, so vital to SSI’s interests, is frankly just beginning. I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s remarks about another battle, “… this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Once again, congratulations to SpaceX.