Early this morning (3:44am ET), space fans who woke up early or stayed up late saw the successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule – the first commercial vehicle set to visit the International Space Station (ISS).
This unmanned cargo supply ship attracted a lot of media attention and caused many a space tweep to forfeit precious sleep to witness the launch. Why? I think there’s one obvious reason and one not-so-tangible-but-equally-important factor.
1) The obvious: It was a “first”
The media always covers firsts and lasts very well because the significance is clear. The initial and final shuttle flights drew attention from around the world, while the dozens in between were often covered in passing.
As the first privately-built, owned, and operated spacecraft to ferry cargo to the ISS, this launch had obvious historical significance – something that was recognized not simply by fans of spaceflight but by the media and, in turn, the public at large.
2) The not-so-obvious: It was a good news space story in a year that needed one
2012 hasn’t been kind so far to fans of both human and robotic spaceflight. While the MSL Curiosity rover is carrying our hopes to Mars, the future of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is unclear. There have been successful Soyuz launches and returns from the ISS, but American astronauts have been left without their own ride. The space shuttles are moving to museums, space science budgets are being cut, and NASA’s long term human spaceflight vision/destination (and its timeline) is fuzzy at best.
For me, this launch gave me something to be excited about again – not just the “in the moment” excitement of a countdown and successful launch, but a “hope for the future” excitement that I’d felt slipping away. With all the celebration of past space milestones – and so few concrete future plans – it became easy to worry that our best days in space were behind us. I still have those concerns, but today’s launch reminded me that while we’re still years away from breaking new geographical frontiers in space, there *is* new ground being broken in the way we will be accessing it.
Private companies like SpaceX have a chance to make the original goal (dream?) of the space shuttle a reality: more frequent, less costly access to low earth orbit (LEO). If commercial space companies can handle the cargo and astronauts traveling to LEO, NASA will be better placed to focus on the next chapter in human spaceflight – sending people to asteroids, the moons of Mars, our Moon, or perhaps even the surface of Mars.
I’ll be cheering the Dragon capsule on as it approaches the ISS later this week and, hopefully, docks with it successfully. That will be another space “first” in a year that so badly needed one.