Last month we saw a great sendoff to the Space Shuttle when Endeavor was flown around the country before reaching its resting place in California. And with the end of the shuttle, NASA currently does not have the capacity to send people into space, minus a substitute program such as from Russia.
But with every end comes an opportunity, and private companies are starting to fill in the vacuum. Tonight should be a great test for that, because, as scheduled for 8:35 PM EST, SpaceX (mission CRS-1) will launch to the International Space Station (ISS). (PDF of mission here.) (FYI: SpaceX was founded by the Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal.)
SpaceX will be using their Falcon 9 rocket (seen above), which has had a number of tests, but this (it’s second flight) will be it’s first to the ISS as part of a resupply mission. This will be a great test not only of this particular rocket, but of private ventures into space and ways NASA can extent its ability to explore space on a restricted budget.
A quick comparison. The launch of the Space Shuttle would have been in the area of half a billion dollars, and it can only go into Earth orbit (unlike Apollo that got people to the Moon). The Falcon 9 launch will cost in the area of $133 million to get to the ISS. We are looking at a quarter the cost, and in the earliest generation of rockets! I also look forward to the Falcon Heavy which will really be a work horse. According to specs, it should be able to get as much cargo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as the Saturn V, the vessel that got Neil Armstrong to the Moon.
We live in some exciting times. Space may become more and more accessible with these sorts of private ventures, but I doubt it will get us to Mars (and perhaps not even the Moon). Why? There are huge risks, lots of unknowns, and the costs jump up exponentially when going that far for that long. Private sector companies do not take such risks, not if they want investors. Which is also why they have jumped to going to LEO and the ISS: it is well-tested ground by NASA. It will probably be government agencies that push forward the frontier, while private ventures will make those new frontiers better and better traversed. This of NASA as Lewis and Clark (does that make Sacajawea a Martian?), and the railroads decades afterward private ventures. Find the route, make the first maps and roads, then let the rest follow.
I am hopeful for continued private sector cooperation with NASA, but the government agent seems criminally under-budget for what it could do. How much is it’s budget? About $18 billion, which is less than 1% of the Federal Budget (about the same as Big Bird’s pension ;)). Less than a penny of every tax dollar helps explore space, helps educate the populace about space, helps develop new technologies, allows us to dream and let our spirits fly. I’m with Neil DeGrasse Tyson: 1 penny for NASA!
Nonetheless, watch the launch tonight. There will be so much awesome in this mission, and I hope all goes well.