Credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin

Private commercial spaceflight is here. The successful return of the Dragon space cargo capsule proved that with a splash.

The unmanned capsule, built and operated by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), carried 1,100 pounds of food, water, equipment and sundry essentials to the International Space Station. Its nine-day mission included five days docked to the station and ended with a return to the Pacific Ocean, where it was retrieved with almost 1,400 pounds of obsolete equipment and science samples.

The Obama administration has pushed to move space flight to private enterprise. NASA's space shuttles were retired last year, an ending vividly marked by the parking of the Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan last week. NASA astronauts now hitch rides on Russian and European spacecraft to get to the International Space Station. SpaceX, in business for a decade, is in the running for a $1.6-billion contract from NASA for 12 supply missions. With the successful return to Earth of the Dragon, the contract is virtually assured. In effect, SpaceX will serve as NASA's taxi to orbit.

From its first days in the early years of the 20th century, spaceflight has always been the province of obsessed individuals. Early rocketry and spaceflight pioneers -- Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, Werner von Braun -- were fueled by the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. They conducted rocketry experiments as kids and were "space cadets" in the truest meaning of the term.

During the Cold War, space became a virtual battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union, as each country vied to show whose technical know-how was better. The Soviets stunned the world in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. NASA was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower a year later, and within a few years, President John F. Kennedy started the Apollo program to land men on the moon and bring them safely back to Earth. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those small steps in 1969, it was a triumph of American engineering. The United States had won the space race.

Forty years later, there's little appetite among politicians for the big spending NASA's manned spaceflights came to signify. So space has gone back to being the province of the besotted -- the likes of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of PayPal who has said he wants to retire on Mars, and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson, who plans to offer space tourism flights, and film director James Cameron, who has announced he's interested in mining asteroids for precious metals.


Such entrepreneurs have always advanced new technologies, though they're not necessarily the inventors themselves. A working steam locomotive was demonstrated by Richard Trevithick in Cornwall, England, years before countryman George Stephenson built the Stockton and Darlington Railway. But it was Stephenson who was entrepreneurial enough to make it successful.

The English inventor Joseph Swan constructed a working incandescent lightbulb before Thomas Alva Edison, who is widely credited with its invention. Swan even set up a company to market his bulb. But it was Edison's entrepreneurship and scheme for electricity distribution that eventually won the day. (Swan's company merged with Edison's later.)

Today, we're still in the early stages of private commercial spaceflight. But there's no doubt that we are witnessing the beginning of a new era, when private corporations will make space their own turf. SpaceX is working on creating space taxis to take NASA astronauts to orbital destinations like the International Space Station. While Cameron's desire to mine asteroids may sound more in the realm of science fiction that science fact, it might indeed be technically feasible -- though the jury is still out on the economic benefits; any precious metals mined this way would be plentiful enough to see their prices drop.


The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, of "2001: A Space Odyssey" fame, once told me in an interview that he believed thousands would travel into orbit in the next 50 years -- and then people would go to the moon and beyond on private spacecraft.

Just dreams from an active imagination? Perhaps. But his 1952 book "The Exploration of Space" was used by von Braun to convince Kennedy that moon travel was possible. In 1945, Clarke proposed geostationary satellites for use in telecommunications -- the basis for today's GPS systems. In 1962, he predicted that mobile communications would one day make it impossible for individuals to escape contact, whether on a mountaintop or the middle of the ocean.

And Clarke predicted shortly before his death in 2008 that commercial spacecraft would become a reality within the decade.

For a long time, it was accepted wisdom that private entrepreneurs couldn't play in areas like big space. SpaceX's Musk has turned that idea on its head. And there are other companies vying for NASA contracts. Orbital Sciences Corp. is supposed to launch its own probe -- one that will also dock with the International Space Station -- later this summer. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also getting involved.

Space continues to be the 21st century frontier. As private enterprises get involved, we may well conquer it faster. As Clarke put it beautifully in his 1968 book "The Promise of Space": "Could the builders of Ur and Babylon -- once the wonders of the world -- have imagined London or New York? Nor can we imagine the citadels that our descendants may one day build beneath the blistering Sun of Mercury or under the stars of the cold Plutonian wastes. And beyond the planets, though ages still ahead of us in time, lies the unknown and infinite promise of the stellar universe."

Saswato R. Das writes about science and technology.

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