Almost from its beginning, the U.S. space program has been a taxpayer-financed program. There were heart-wrenching tragedies as well as notable successes in the program operated by NASA over the decades, but in the main it was successful. It met national objectives, won a wide global following and served as a source of national pride. That is in the past. In the present, following the retirement of the shuttles, the U.S. role in space increasingly will become the province of private enterprise. The success of SpaceX and its Dragon capsule late last month is a taste of the future.
The Dragon capsule, the product of the Space Exploration Technology Corp, more popularly known as SpaceX, was launched on May 22, flew 240 miles into space and successfully docked with the International Space Station. Astronauts unloaded more than 1,000 pounds of needed supplies, and then Dragon returned to Earth, landing safely last week in the Pacific Ocean. It was a signal achievement.
Proponents of private enterprise, of course, are ecstatic. The mission, they say, proves what entrepreneurs have been saying for years. Private companies can do the same work as government agencies with more efficiency and at less cost. That, in Dragon's case, seems to be the case.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion government contract to operate 12 more supply missions to the space station. That's a lot of money, but the price tag, many observers agree, is probably significantly lower than a similar enterprise undertaken by the federal government. Still, the role of private enterprise in space won't be fully validated until SpaceX and similar companies prove they can accomplish such missions on a regular basis. We'll have to wait for proof.
There is more included in privatization of space exploration than saving dollars. Long-range U.S. policy is involved. Though NASA's direct role in space travel has been reduced, it still is a major player in determining when the United States will undertake the type of mind-boggling missions that fire the imagination and that produce quantifiable benefits in fields like communication and medicine. Manned space flight to distant sites -- Mars and beyond -- is an example.
The nation must pursue to such objectives if it is to maintain primacy in space. And while SpaceX and other companies say they can develop the capacity for long-term missions, questions remain about their willingess to do so if investments in new technology erode short-term profits.
It is one thing for private companies to use established technology to run a ferry service to the space station. It is another for private enterprise to invest in research and development in support of U.S. policy without promise of immediate return. Whether they will or not is a question that they have yet to answer. Taxpayers and the government await their response.