05/30/2012 08:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The New Space Era Takes Big Steps Forward

A very important mission is about to wind up. The first private spacecraft to visit the International Space Station, from California's SpaceX Corp., has already achieved very notable historical firsts, successfully matching orbits with the ISS at 17,500 miles per hour, performing a series of complex maneuvers in close proximity to the station in the course of that rendezvous, and at last docking with it, bringing the first supplies for the ISS carried aloft by a private vehicle.

Till now, only governments -- US, Russia, Europe and Japan -- have sent missions to the space station. All that is changing in the post-space shuttle era. The US is dependent on Russia for getting astronauts to the ISS. But private enterprise is beginning to pick up the slack for orbital missions, with LA-based SpaceX, more formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp., leading the way with other companies rushing to compete. As private enterprise emerges, NASA is turning its focus to deep space, continuing with unmanned missions run out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in the LA area, and developing ambitious new manned missions to the asteroids and to Mars.

The Dragon spacecraft from California's SpaceX Corp. made an historic arrival at the International Space Station on Friday morning, captured by astronauts wielding a giant robotic arm. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and CEO, as well as co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors and chairman of Solar City, says this is just the beginning. The craft returns to Earth on May 31st.

But that's mostly in the future. On Thursday, the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which is slated to carry astronauts to the ISS in a few years but will perform re-supply missions in the meantime, will return to Earth, carrying the take from scientific experiments, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. Other supply vessels burn up in the atmosphere, but Dragon, designed from the outset for human orbital voyages in a few years, is reusable, like the old shuttles but without their complications and expense.

These accomplishments are building on existing technology developed for NASA. The success of their applications here in private enterprise form for missions around the Earth frees up NASA to focus on research and development for outward bound missions. And it paves the way for further development of a thriving space industry, with entrepreneurial applications that are not entirely foreseeable. Just as government-funded development of the semiconductor for government space and military programs in the 1960s paved the way for the private computer industry.

This is all in furtherance of Enlightenment ideals engrained in the fabric of American society by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin: Curiosity, exploration, scientific advancement turned into ingenuity and know-how to accomplish practical goals and maintain a sense of vision for further advances in knowledge.

Some believe that we have too many problems here on Earth to concern ourselves with space. But problems are part of the human condition. I believe that humanity can and will improve, though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. But improvement is not perfection. Which is all the more reason why we must continue to look beyond our own insularity and push outward and upward.

Back to what we are seeing with the SpaceX mission and what it may mean in the near future. What is still ongoing -- returning the capsule to Earth is something that SpaceX has already done, albeit not from the ISS before -- is a tremendous set of strides forward.

This was actually two missions in one. Originally, the culmination of this mission was to be the rendezvous without docking. The actual docking and carrying of cargo was to be another mission.

Very early on the morning of May 24th, the Dragon spacecraft from California's SpaceX successfully rendezvoused with the International Space Station, matching orbits with the ISS at over 17,000 miles per hour as it successfully performed an intricate series of test maneuvers in advance of Friday's planned docking, as seen in this NASA video shot by ISS astronauts.

But SpaceX leaders felt they could go beyond that plan right now. And so they have done, to dramatic effect.

SpaceX is joined in the commercial quest for servicing the ISS by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences. But that firm has yet to do a test flight.

There have been some false starts in the past in terms of private space exploration and space commercialization.

At the end of the '90s, I was briefly involved with the California Spaceport Authority, an agency authorized by the state but in reality a non-profit corporation designated for the task. Then Governor Gray Davis recognized that it was a rough time for commercial space and nothing much came of it and the non-profit no longer exists. But things ebb and flow.

Since aviation and aerospace have long been big in California, it makes sense that much of the new space era is developing here.

Current Governor Jerry Brown, of course, was derided as "Moonbeam" during his first two terms as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s because he wanted a state communication satellite. Today that exotic idea is more common sense, like the energy conservation and renewable energy ideas that were also derided at the time. His talk of a mission to Mars is not yet common sense. But it is national policy, at last.

But a supportive environment is only one thing that's needed. What's really needed are entrepreneurs and companies with daring, vision, and resources.

That's where SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, part inspiration for his friend Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man (he even has a cameo in the series), comes in.

Musk co-founded PayPal, the Internet financial transactions service. With that fortune as his foundation, he went on to co-found Tesla Motors, the leading electric car company, and SpaceX. He also helped the founders of Solar City and serves as its chairman.

SpaceX's powerful Falcon rockets are named after the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo's ship in the Star Wars saga. (The Dragon capsule is named after the Peter, Paul & Mary song, "Puff the Magic Dragon.")

And there are big Star Trek and Right Stuff connections in this mission, too, as the Falcon rocket carried cremated remains of some 300 people into orbit, including those of original Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper (played by Dennis Quaid in the movie) and James Doohan, who memorably portrayed Scottie, the chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise in the three seasons of the original Star Trek series and in the first seven Star Trek feature films.

But for all the Star Wars and Star Trek resonances in this mission, Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon seems a better fictional precursor. Heinlein's D.D. Harriman, in a story written in the 1940s, spearheads a private venture to go to the Moon and succeeds.

In reality, SpaceX and some of the other new space era companies are dependent in large on government contracts, at least for now, though they are getting private contracts as well. Government, as it frequently does, is helping the companies achieve critical mass. What they do from there will be critical.

The second time was the charm. California's SpaceX, after a literally last-second abort early Saturday morning at Cape Canaveral, successfully launched the first private spacecraft to visit the International Space Station early last Tuesday morning at the Cape.

There are dangers in the new space era. We saw, for example, many crashes with post-Lindbergh ocean flying. And there were many crashes in the early days of the airlines as well.

The space shuttle, for all the nostalgia some of us feel towards it, was essentially a flying truck. It didn't take us outward bound, it took us around and around, for 30 years.

With the small shuttle "fleet" becoming museum pieces around the country, the ISS currently relies on Russian spacecraft for sending and retrieving its crew. Astronauts go up and down in the venerable Soyuz capsule, taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the former Soviet republic that allows Moscow control over the swath of land necessary to mount what it is arguably the biggest space launch operation in the world.

A rocket from California's SpaceX, set to be the first private spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station, roared to life for a history-making liftoff very early on the morning of May 19th, but remained stuck on the ground following a last-second abort at Cape Canaveral. The onboard computer system shut down the rocket after one of nine engines showed higher than desired internal pressure. This has happened with other test flights, which went off later the same day. But this mission had only a one-second launch window, so the next opportunity did not come for another three days.

Relations have improved with Russia under Obama. But Vladimir Putin, back as president of Russia after a four-year stint as prime minisiter, is much less friendly than Dmitry Medvedev. Putin's former chief of staff, who liked to pal around with Obama eating burgers, and who came to California to do his very good Arnold impression with then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he became a Twitter buddy, is a friendly international lawyer type. Putin is a more wintry character, a KGB colonel from the Cold War who rose to become head of the successor FSB security service under Boris Yeltsin, who then made him prime minister as Russia's government floundered in inefficiency.

Putin hammered breakaway Chechnya into submission, giving him the bona fides to become president in his own right. He's significantly less favorable to US and Western geopolitical goals than was Medvedev.

All of which makes America's reliance on Russia for sending our astronauts into space awkward at best.

In addition to Hawthorne serving as mission control for SpaceX, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in nearby Pasadena is in charge of the expansive unmanned deep space exploration projects underway, such as the current Mars Rover missions Opportunity, still operating since landing in early 2004, and Curiosity. The new Mars Rover is scheduled to land on Mars in less than three months.

LA is a major nexus in this era of space exploration. But another place in California might be even more important.

Mojave (Mo-hah-vee), in the high desert of Southern California near the legendary flight test range of Edwards Air Force Base (think Chuck Yeager), did become a spaceport after all, but with minimal help from the state. (As distinguished from state action in New Mexico, which, under then Governor Bill Richardson, funded development of a spaceport.) Still, there was always state interest.

I watched the December 2009 christening at Mojave, in near freezing conditions, by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Virgin chairman Richard Branson, of the first SpaceShipTwo, now undergoing flight testing.

This craft, part of Branson's Virgin Galactic venture, is designed for sub-orbital space tourism. Which is another way to further development of private spacecraft.

But there's more going on at Mojave, as this New York Times round-up early this month makes clear.

It's all very exciting and promising. Do we know precisely where it ends up? Of course not. That's part of the fun of it. But we know which direction it's pointing.


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