The Dawn of the Era of Private Human Spaceflight

04/11/2012 11:49 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2012

While visiting San Francisco awhile back, Yuki Takahashi was away at the South Pole working on a telescope for his Ph.D. He remotely organized for me to visit his laboratory in Berkeley where another telescope had been constructed by his team. Earlier on, as a Fulbright scholar in Glasgow, Yuki had written his master's thesis proposing a novel idea of placing a very low frequency radio array near the lunar South Pole; he received a special mention in the New Scientist. And in the fall of 2003, he was named the "Young Lunar Explorer" of the year. An award that International Space University received in 2004 -- partly for our 2003 Team Project, METZTLI: An ISS approach to Lunar Exploration, and our seven-person International Lunar Exploration Working Group task led by Yuki from Berkeley, and coordinated by me in Strasbourg. In 2002, at about the time of his master's thesis, definitely unbeknownst to Yuki, Space Exploration Technologies, a privately-owned company, was born. Yuki's infectious passion working on radio frequency and opening up the final frontier for humanity seemed it'd get realized faster than he had thought, at least not with the encumbrances associated with such in government-led ventures.

Under the guidance of Elon Musk, a "South African in Los Angeles" shaping multiple industries from sustainable energy with SolarCity to electric cars with Tesla Motors, his pragmatic instinct shoots beyond the sub-orbital, and makes the seemingly impossible possible with SpaceX; dreams of someday getting to the moon again, and beyond, to Mars, are getting clearer.

SpaceX is demonstrating an unparalleled ability in so many ways. The organization is similar only to institutions such as Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now NASA Langley Research Center) of the aviation's "Second Golden Age." As described by Deborah Douglas, who served as Langley's visiting historian from 1994 to 1999, Langley had the ability to "attract bright young university graduates... [and] develop them into first-class research men." She continued, "For those who worked at Langley during this time: Can you imagine a more productive, interesting, challenging, exhilarating (and perhaps exhausting) time?" "Yukimoon" and the rest of the tireless SpaceX engineers working on the Falcon and the Dragon at SpaceX had spent weeks and months perfecting the enabling technologies to making Dragon able to meet up the deadlines of reaching the International Space Station. SpaceX was contracted in 2008 by NASA under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to transport resupply to the astronauts on the ISS, since the U.S. Space Shuttle would get retired. Orbital Sciences Corp. is equally developing its own cargo freighter, Cygnus spacecraft under a $1.9 billion NASA contract.

In a somewhat real demonstration of what "dragons" are on the way to Mars, Robert Zubrin in his book, The Case for Mars, identified issues such as radiation, zero-g, human factors, dust storms and back contamination; in the same light, we may include reusable launchers and budgetary issues, which often intrude into, or blur out mission plans. The characteristic of the dragon was succinctly and scarily put by John in the book of Revelation as, "The great red dragon with seven dreaded heads, ten horns; having seven crowns upon its heads?" However, the Dragon from SpaceX is also great and characteristically an appearance of another wonder but this time, on Earth, going towards the stars of heaven and to be back to Earth sometime. It's a free-flying, fully recoverable capsule.

As a matter of fact, SpaceX's Dragon is built in such fashion to militate against most of the seven dreads described by John and Bob. Very importantly, SpaceX's Dragon has opportunities for radiation effects research, zero-g research, and life science and biotech studies are available to the scientific community. It has a highly responsive payload hosting, spacecraft development, and space physics and relativity experiments. Among other possibilities are Earth sciences and observations, materials and space environments research, rendezvous and inspection, and robotic servicing.

The Dragon and the Falcon 9 that carries it is poised to have its first flight to the ISS soon as recently announced by SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, and for up to 12 unmanned flights at the first instance on a $1.6 billion NASA deal. Its mission is to enable humans to access the ISS by being a capable spacecraft designed for the low Earth orbit. The "DragonLab" is even manifesting further capability for non-ISS missions, with a vision for Mars. Other U.S. companies are equally developing their own private crewed spacecraft, some like SpaceX with NASA funding.

SpaceX seems to be perfecting both the technologies and the economics of rocket science. Falcon 9/Dragon system can carry seven astronauts to orbits -- more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat. The Chinese market has continuously offered the most competitive prices in innovation. However this time, a Chinese government official noted, according to Aviation Week, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last year that "they find the published prices on the SpaceX website very low for the services offered, and concede they could not match them with the Long Mach series of launch vehicles." In May 2011, Elon stated that "for the first time in more than three decades, America last year began taking back international market-share in commercial satellite launch."

This is just the beginning. It is always inspiring listening to the "Iron Man" discussing issues relating to spaceflight. He is very passionate about helping make humans a "multiplanetary race." This he thinks possible, by developing Falcon 9 heavy launcher, with the capabilities similar only to Saturn V. Werner Von Braun, a former Nazi, whom the world celebrated his centennial anniversary posthumously on March 23, had led the development of this launcher used for the Apollo program. Elon has also recognized that for this new and "advanced race" to be possible, the Falcon 9 heavy launcher must be fully reusable, which will take it a step farther ahead of the Saturn V rocket. This we believe will be the game changer. The man's vision tears-off the normal comprehensible limits of human's imagination -- his dream is to carry men to Mars with his rockets, back to Earth, and to take off back to Mars in a routine, thereby fast emerging as the new Wilbur Wright of the "Wright Brothers," and he's a leading light of the pack who's leading Spaceflight's "Second Golden Age."

Safe flight to and from the ISS, Dragon, the journey to Mars is about to begin. To the World Space Party goers (Yuri's Night) tomorrow (April 12), and to the world at large, it's time to fasten our belts for "a whole new world" -- a phrase by Peabo Bryson -- Happy World Human Spaceflight Day. Ad Astra.