New ventures mark our place in space

SpaceX is now NASA’s favorite contractor. If their Dragon spacecraft can mate with the International Space Station, then part of the future is wide open. The orbiting delivery truck just proved that cost and effort have to be spread around in order to advance our place in space.

I cringed when I saw a billionaire pay for a ticket into orbit. It was tacky and he did squat to further the pursuit of science. But I knew it was merely a slice of genuine exploration. Zero-g tourism leads to private developers. Development leads to commercial ventures. Like in any market or region, business is all about risk. As the owners of the Dragon spacecraft just learned, sometimes taking a risk can help you make history. These wonderful moments will help us climb further into space.

We should remember that Drake and Columbus needed government subsidies to keep their jobs. They made a pitch to the crown, knowing how pricey it was to voyage over the horizon. Private financiers picked up the tab for future endeavors. There was always the chance at turning a profit. Centuries later, investors are trying to make similar projections. Will the first manned ship to Mars be privately manufactured? Will it be leased and flown by NASA astronauts like some sort of U-Haul? The next champion of the stars may not wear a U.S. or Russian spacesuit–it could be a set of digs with a shiny corporate logo.

We’re looking for the orbiting version of Gates, Curtis, Ericsson, even Shelby. We’re looking for ventures that can fly. I still remember all the “what if” articles in Wired and Popular Mechanics. One guy is testing a prototype engine that can cut the fuel costs on the ISS or any spaceship by millions. Another engineer had the idea to “flip” unused booster rockets and tie them together as an orbital habitat. We may also see robots that sweep up orbital trash and mining probes that catch asteroids.

Dreams, of course, but good dreams. SpaceX has a dream that came to life, and it’s going to dock with the International Space Station.

Update:  a Dragon takes its first baby steps

Wired has displayed the ISS video of a 1.5-mile approach from the Dragon spacecraft. The unmanned ship is barely visible above the Earth.

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