With everything else going on in the world, this week’s American space launch with two astronauts aboard a private commercial space ship is a huge historical event that is getting too little attention. Let’s take a moment to soak up what is really happening here.
I was in Air Force pilot training when, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to become the first humans to set foot on the moon. Many other breakthroughs in space have flashed across worldwide news media over the 51 years since that phenomenon–Skylab, space shuttle, Mars rover missions, etc. But astronauts Doug Hurley’s and Bob Behnken’s flight to the Skylab this Wednesday crosses a historical threshold considered science fiction until recently.
Elon Musk, a South Africa born American, became a multi-billionaire from his ingenious entrepreneurial adventures with PayPal, Tesla, and other leading edge projects.
In 2002, he founded SpaceX with the dream of becoming the first commercial transporter of people into the far reaches of space. Since the space race of the early 1960’s, all human space travel has been through the technology and funding of powerful governments, namely the US, Russia, and China. For six decades, the consensus of scientists and governments was to dismiss the idea of privately operated space travel. Meanwhile, Musk has been seriously developing a plan to travel to Mars.
With $100 million of his early fortune, the 49-year old led the SpaceX corporation in designing a family of launch vehicles and the multipurpose spacecraft, Dragon, over a span of seven years. On May 25, 2012, the unmanned Dragon docked with the Skylab in the first of 12 historic supply missions contracted by NASA after the US space shuttle retired in 2011. Space travel had become officially commercialized. However, our American astronauts shuttling to and from Skylab were still hitch-hiking on Russian spacecraft.
This Wednesday, May 27, weather permitting, NASA’s Hurley and Behnken will suit up and strap into Dragon for this unprecedented ride to Skylab. America will be back in the game with over-the-top fanfare. The two crewmen will ride from the remodeled crew quarters to the launch pad not in the typical nondescript government van but in the Elon Musk Tesla Model X electric car. Their space suits will be new one-piece Star-Wars-like fashion statements.
Expect Musk to milk the significance of this day for all it’s worth.
America owned space travel through the latter half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, we somehow lost our ambition for leadership in the realm of space. America’s astronauts thumbing rides on Russia’s space vehicles has been shameful. In keeping with the American free market spirit, this week will mark the turning point of the reclaiming of our place in space–and rightly through non-government entrepreneurial tenacity. America is back!