Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Five Years

Back in the summer of 2005, the exciting developments in the field of space exploration inspired me to start blogging about them. Those were very heady days; America was going back to the moon, and numerous starry-eyed NewSpace firms had plans to put the common man into orbit around the earth.

There were two big announcements from that period which really turned the industry on its ear. The first was Orion and Ares I, a capsule and launch vehicle which would be developed and operated by NASA as part of its efforts to staff the International Space Station and return humans to the moon. The other was SpaceX's announcement of Falcon 9, a launch vehicle capable of placing a manned capsule in orbit.

Today, SpaceX made good on an incredibly bold promise that was five years in the making. After a successful launch of the first Falcon 9 in June, SpaceX launched a second Falcon 9 with an unmanned version of its Dragon capsule, and safely returned that capsule from earth orbit to an ocean splashdown. As SpaceX founder Elon Musk put it, if the capsule were manned, the passengers would have had a fun ride.

There are few remaining obstacles in the way of commercial space voyages for anybody who is able to put up the money to afford them. Once SpaceX can demonstrate proximity operations and docking with the International Space Station, the door has truly been opened to the commercial utilization of the final frontier.

As far as the other announcement goes, the Ares I is now a part of space history, the interesting ideas that produced flashy viewgraphs and some hardware but never quite made it to space. Over the long run, Ares I proved to be a largely-new solid first stage and liquid-fueled second stage which would take too long to develop, cost too much money to get to flight status, and consume even more money over its operational life. For better or worse, Ares I was designed to protect the status quo of NASA's industrial base. As a political animal, it fell victim to the change in administrations. The same can't be said of clean-sheet, privately-funded efforts like SpaceX and Dragon.

Right now I'm enjoying a stiff drink in honor of SpaceX. Today will rank amongst events like the flights of SpaceShipOne as the pivotal events which enabled humans to colonize the heavens.