Even opponents of America’s use of commercial space flight ought to acknowledge that the nine-day mission of the SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station was an unmitigated success.
If it can be duplicated — and become routine — it just might allow NASA to focus on more ambitious projects such as landing astronauts on asteroids or even Mars.
That is part of what President Barack Obama has in mind for NASA, a vision that has drawn sharp criticism from supporters of the space agency, particularly former astronauts. Many of them think the president is ceding America’s pre-eminence in space and want our country to explore space more aggressively, including with manned missions.
The SpaceX Dragon’s success should mute those criticisms, at least temporarily. Given that its flight was technically a test flight — and just the second time a Dragon capsule has returned from orbit — the company and NASA have reason for joy. Its flight also was the first time since the shuttles were retired that a craft has returned with materials from the space station.
SpaceX didn’t much NASA hasn’t done — and it and other private space firms have benefited from NASA investments. That doesn’t diminish its success. Dragon followed a flawless launch May 22 by successfully docking with the space station, where its cargo, mostly food for the crew, was swapped with items to be returned to Earth. Six hours after undocking, it splashed down as scheduled and on target in the Pacific Ocean more than 500 miles off of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.
Small wonder Elon Musk, the billionaire who built SpaceX (and Tesla Motors and PayPal), was jubilant. “You can see so many ways that it could fail, and it works, and you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, it didn’t fail.’ ”
It isn’t difficult to imagine the reaction if the mission had failed. Not only would failure have discredited Mr. Musk and SpaceX, it would have been a huge setback for commercial space flight and left NASA grasping for direction.
Mr. Musk, SpaceX and NASA expect this success to lead to regular Dragon flights to the space station, though SpaceX’s competitors doubtless have similar goals.
SpaceX doesn’t seem content simply to replace NASA’s shuttles. Mr. Musk plans for future Dragons to land on solid ground instead of in the ocean and wants to be ferrying astronauts to the space station within four years.
Plenty of work remains, for SpaceX, its competitors and NASA. Nevertheless, as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden observed after Dragon splashed down, “This successful splashdown and the many other achievements of this mission herald a new era in U.S. commercial space flight.”