Back In The Saddle Again

Today, March 3rd, 2019, everything changed. It might be just another spring day wherever you are, but this is the day the space age got back on track.

Bold statement? Allow me to back it up.

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Nearly everything most people alive today think about NASA is based on the Apollo program and NASA’s high-profile attempts to keep the manned space program going through the Congressional withdrawal from its economic aftermath. The moon landings were a wondrous achievement and the Space Shuttle accomplished much, but the fact is, NASA was not founded to go to the moon or run an expensive orbiter program for three decades. NASA was created to continue The N.A.C.A.’s work of fostering and promoting American industry–to continue its legacy of aeronautical research and advancement into the space age.

While the Apollo program and Space Shuttle contributed to this goal, they were also expensive (though necessary) distractions from the entrepreneurial thinking needed to get from “One Giant Leap” to meaningful movement beyond the Earth. But now, after two decades of competitions patterned somewhat after the aeronautical Guggenheim prizes of the 1920s and 30s and administered by NASA, space entrepreneurship is booming.

In the past, firms bid on military style cost-plus contracts to sell NASA the boosters it needed. Now, Space-X (and others) are developing their own boosters with NASA as collaborator and customer for for-profit launch services. It can hardly be a surprise then, that Space-X is “boldly going” to innovate and cut costs. The cheaper they fly, the more they bank.

And so, this morning, the first privately owned crew launch system in the history of Earth docked with the ISS, without berthing by robotic arm and without manual intervention by rocket jock astronauts. It was only a test flight, but it was far more than a step toward America’s return to space following the retirement of the shuttle. It’s a sea change. It’s the beginning of space, the industrial marketplace.

It changes everything.

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For more on this topic, see my article “Do We Still Need NASA?” coming soon to Analog Science Fiction & Fact.