Fractured and divided as we are, on one thing we can agree: 2015 was a miserable year. The only cheer was provided by Lincoln Chafee and the Pluto flyby (two separate phenomena), as well as one seminal aeronautical breakthrough.
On Dec. 21, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, after launching 11 satellites into orbit, returned its 15-story booster rocket, upright and intact, to a landing pad at Cape Canaveral. That’s a $60 million mountain of machinery — recovered. (The traditional booster rocket either burns up or disappears into some ocean.)
The reusable rocket has arrived. Arguably, it arrived a month earlier when Blue Origin, a privately owned outfit created by Jeffrey P. Bezos (Amazon chief executive and owner of this newspaper) launched and landed its own booster rocket, albeit for a suborbital flight. But whether you attribute priority to Musk or Bezos, the two events together mark the inauguration of a new era in spaceflight.
Musk predicts that the reusable rocket will reduce the cost of accessing space a hundredfold. This depends, of course, on whether the wear and tear and stresses of the launch make the refurbishing prohibitively expensive. Assuming it’s not, and assuming Musk is even 10 percent right, reusability revolutionizes the economics of spaceflight.
Which both democratizes and commercializes it. Which means space travel has now slipped the surly bonds of government — presidents, Congress, NASA bureaucracies. Its future will now be driven far more by a competitive marketplace with its multiplicity of independent actors, including deeply motivated, financially savvy and visionary entrepreneurs.
To be sure, the enterprise is not entirely free of government. After all, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landed on a Cape Canaveral pad formerly used to launch Air Force Atlas rockets. Moreover, initial financing for these ventures already depends in part on NASA contracts, such as resupplying the space station.
That, however, is not much different from the growth of aviation a century ago. It hardly lived off air-show tickets or Channel-crossing prize money. What really propelled the infant industry was government contracts. For useful things like mail — and bomb — delivery.
The first and most visible consequence of the new entrepreneurial era will be restoring America as a spacefaring nation. Yes, I know we do spectacular robotic explorations. But our ability to toss humans into space disappeared when NASA retired the space shuttle — without a replacement.
To get an astronaut into just low Earth orbit, therefore, we have to hitch a ride on Russia’s Soyuz with its 1960s technology. At $82 million a pop. Yet, today, two private companies already have contracts with NASA to send astronauts to the space station as soon as 2017.
The real prize, however, lies beyond Earth orbit. By now, everyone realizes that the space station was a colossal mistake, a white elephant in search of a mission. Its main contribution is to study the biological effects of long-term weightlessness. But we could have done that in Skylab, a modest space station that our political betters decided four decades ago to abandon.
With increasing privatization, such decisions will no longer be exclusively Washington’s. When President Obama came into office, the plan was to return to the moon by 2020. A year later, he decided we should go to an asteroid instead. Why? Who knows.
Today future directions are being set by private companies with growing technical experience and competing visions. Musk is fixated on colonizing Mars, Bezos on seeing millions of people living and working in space, and Richard Branson on space tourism by way of Virgin Galactic (he has already sold 700 tickets to ride at $250,000 each). And Moon Express, another private enterprise, is not even interested in hurling about clumsy, air-breathing humans. It is bent on robotic mining expeditions to the moon. My personal preference is a permanent manned moon base, which would likely already exist had our politicians not decided to abandon the moon in the early 1970s.
We have no idea which plan is more likely to succeed and flourish. But the beauty of privatization is that we don’t get just one shot at it. Our trajectory in space will now be the work of a functioning market of both ideas and commerce. It no longer will hinge on the whims of only tangentially interested politicians.
Space has now entered the era of the Teslas, the Edisons and the Wright brothers. From now on, they will be doing more and more of the driving. Which means we are actually — finally — going somewhere again.