SpaceX Flight Launches: Could Private Space Flight Make NASA Irrelevant?

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule lifts off from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station

REUTERS/Scott Audette

Talk about outsourcing.

NASA took a giant leap toward effective irrelevance today with the 10:43 AM launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. You’ve never heard of the Falcon 9? How about PayPal, then? Good, because they were both produced by the same guy—entrepreneur and all-around brainiac Elon Musk. Get used to the name since before long he may be the only guy who can get Americans into space.

(See the top 50 space moments since Sputnik.)

When President Obama took office nearly two years ago, he inherited a mess of woes from the outgoing administration, but ex-President Bush did leave him one gem: a re-invigorated NASA that was working aggressively to put human beings back on the moon. Spacecraft were being designed, boosters were being built, factories were being re-tooled, metal was being cut. That came essentially to a halt with a new White House policy to scrap the new lunar program, stand down the new boosters and leave it largely to the private sector to build rockets and ferry Americans into orbit. The moon would be taken off the table, but other deep space destinations such as asteroid flybys would still be a possibility—someday.

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Two big firms are currently vying to be the government’s prime supplier: Orbital Sciences, in Dulles, Va., and SpaceX, based in Texas and California. SpaceX is Musk’s operation, and the company vaulted to a big lead with its launch today. In July, a Falcon 9 successfully put a mock-up of the company’s Dragon space capsule into orbit. Today’s flight is a two-orbit, 3 hr. and 30 min. mission, which is intended not just to get the Dragon payload into space, but return it successfully for a splashdown in the Pacific.

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That’s the smallest of small potatoes for NASA, but big news for the private sector. If the mission is successful, it positions SpaceX to become the principle taxi service to and from the International Space Station. That will become especially important next year when the space shuttles are retired, leaving Americans dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to and from orbit.

(See how Musk was the model for Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies.)

It’s a very big day for Musk and SpaceX, and the champagne corks will justifiably pop if the splashdown goes smoothly. Things are less celebratory for NASA, and less still for Americans who remember—and long for—the space triumphs of old. -Jeffrey Kluger