The Start of Something Fantastic: SpaceX Orbits the Earth

Yesterday, at 10:43 in the morning, a Falcon 9 rocket carried a Dragon capsule into a low earth orbit, where it circled the Earth twice before splashing down on target 500 miles off the coast of Southern California. This marked the first time that a private commercial firm has accomplished such a task, joining only a handful of countries (The United States, Russia, China, India, Japan and the European Space Agency) by going into the skies above. By doing so, it has marked the start of a new age in space travel, one that is independent of governmental agencies. Even more astonishing, this comes from a company that was founded a mere eight years ago.

The rise of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) comes during a time of stagnation in space exploration. The last manned mission to the moon occurred in 1972 with Apollo 17, with Skylab crashing down to Earth in 1979 while Russia’s Mir Space Station followed in 2001. The American space shuttle was first launched in 1981, heralding in its own age of scientific exploration by launching satellites, conducting repair and resupply missions and generally serving as an orbital laboratory for scientific project, and sees its own mission end early next year with two final flights. Finally, the International Space Station, a testament to international cooperation and scientific endeavor, was launched in 1998, and is scheduled for completion next year. In spite of the numerous accomplishments that NASA and other space agencies have achieved over the last three decades, their efforts have gone unrewarded by the general public and political elements, who see the efforts as a waste of money and time on behalf of the people.

Space and operations in orbit are something that will continue in the near future, and the introduction of a commercial firm is something that will help to supplement the people in orbit. Commercial firms also have the ability to break the monopoly that governments are able to hold on space operations by opening up access to Earth’s orbit for not only people, but additional platforms in the skies for businesses and travel.

That future is still something that is far off, and will require an immense amount of preparation, coordination and regulation in order to become fully viable, safe and profitable for interested parties. There is a growing problem with objects in Earth’s orbit, which caused collisions and dangerous conditions for astronauts and hardware, while the expense for trips into orbit is high. (SpaceX charges upwards of $43.5 million for up to 3,000 kg) Space is still something outside of the general public, and like any big, complicated, dangerous activity, it’ll take a while for the prices to go down to a more affordable level, and for an entire industry to take form to support it.

An independent, forward-thinking and rational commercial future for space allows for a great deal of independence. Companies won’t be constrained by political whims and budget shortfalls, but by economic pressure to succeed amongst a pack of competitors. There will be a regulatory body to keep the conduct of these companies in check (and when you’re talking about the risks of spaceflight, this is something that will be needed), and companies will be able to expand and explore new possibilities and ventures much faster than a governmental body, and the advances that they find and create can translate into new opportunities for those of us on the ground.

As the United States grapples with economic problems, Space should be the next frontier and direction for U.S. business interests to move forward to. Long-term efforts into space bring about the possibilities of incredible exploration, scientific discovery, mineral wealth and virtually unlimited space for growth and real estate. The United States maintains a massive advantage over other countries, and would do well to foster the development of a space industry within the United States to help better its own economy (think of the requirements for skilled labor and jobs that such a line of work requires) and to bring humanity further into the stars.

The futures that have long been seen in science fiction novels, television shows and movies are still a long way off, but the steps taken by SpaceX, and the other private firms that are sure to follow over the next couple of decades make me hopeful for the futures that we might have in orbit and beyond. Maybe, just maybe, within my lifetime, I’ll be able to look down on the Earth and smile.


17 thoughts on “The Start of Something Fantastic: SpaceX Orbits the Earth

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    • Didn’t know about it, but no, not in the context that I was talking about – that’s a satellite, as opposed to a vehicle designed for transport. When you include satellites, the number of countries opens up a bit.

  3. “… comes during a time of stagnation in space exploration.” I think your definition of exploration needs some work. We currently have missions in progress to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Pluto, and plans for visiting other planets and moons. We have robotic observers watching the sun from different perspectives, visiting comets, and monitoring the Earth and moon. There’s a whole lot of exploring in progress and planned, most of it not involving lofting people into orbit.

    While manned missions are exciting and good space theater, they are vastly expensive, contribute little or nothing to exploring space, and take money away from real scientific work. As a lifelong reader of SF, I love the idea of people in space as much as anyone, but I learn more interesting and exciting things from unmanned missions than from the limited, near-earth orbit manned missions. And while I realize that the Hubble was serviced from the Shuttle, that’s only one example, it was quite expensive, and it didn’t have to be that way.

    It’s about time we had a commercial space industry. I’m looking forward to it getting the government out of sending people into space, making it more likely that normal (though, probably, rich) people can get up there, and freeing government resources for real scientific exploration.

    • I probably should have said Manned efforts, but I’ll stand by my point, and putting people into orbit as well, and not just because of a Science Fiction fascination that I have: robotic systems can’t replace human observation. Currently, we’ve explored something like 6 square miles of the lunar surface, and the astronauts on the ground up there noted that they observed things that robotic systems might not have picked up. (Can’t remember where I read that, however – I’ll need to look up the reference.)

      The same things applies to satellites such as Hubble breaking down, or other installations that we have up there – people are the ultimate versatile tools, and while missions can be rigorously planned out, the unforeseen can often happen, either due to human error or otherwise. If a screw wasn’t turned all the way, a mission might not work – a person in the loop can easily fix things like that.

      Additionally, we’re not as interested in manned missions as we were, especially when it comes to exploration like we were for Apollo. The Space Shuttle and space stations have a very different focus than Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, and while yes, we’ve sent robotic probes to a bunch of places and found fantastic things, the stagnation isn’t just in the money spent on such programs, it’s in our collective attention span as well.

  4. @Bob,

    I do agree with a lot of what you are saying. But I think the idea in general with the article is saying is to spend more time and money looking at space.

    There is a shit ton out there that we do not know and the more we are able to learn the better off we will be. We are constantly finding new things on our own planet. There must be things on the moon and other areas that could help us in our energy struggles right in front of our faces, but we won’t know. We spend all of our money on defense instead of looking at space and doing it collectively to really better the human race.

    • Agreed. There should be a distinction between ‘pure’ scientific exploration and economic exploration here. Space exploration and automated systems will only continue if there is a percieved tangible gain to the people who fund it, especially in the private sector. If the sorts of things like Kepler and Hubble were left up to business interests, I have little doubt that they would have been cancelled long ago as a bad idea. This is where the positive elements of a government funded program comes in: they can do things that grant a lot of insight and scientific advances. When it comes to going to space to try and solve energy and economic needs, different rules will need to apply.

      What takes priority? I don’t know for certain, but I would put more money on a program that could bring about a positive economic gain for the U.S. – mining? Solar arrays? Strange new minerals and resources? I don’t know that our current robotic systems can be used to gauge these things in place of a person.

  5. Ukraine is capable to launch a satellite to low-Earth orbit. “Sealaunch” – a cooperation to bring satellites to geostationary orbit used Ukrainian lower stage vehicle.

    • Yep, as I said, once you include satellite capabilities, there’s more countries. I’ve put in a distinction between satellites and spacecraft (a vehicle that can carry a person and return to Earth) because they are truly different in role and mission complexity.

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    • Not forgetting, but as I’ve noted in a couple of comments here, there’s a difference between satellites and vehicles. (One’s designed to come down safely). The above list includes the countries that have accomplished that. To be incredibly pedantic, one can include the nationalities of the people in various programs (I know in that case, Germany would have to be on the U.S. and Russian lists) for their contributions, but I’m trying to avoid that.

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