June 8, 2012

VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE: SpaceX delivers flawless space mission

Chicago Tribune


The latest mission of an American spacecraft to the International Space Station was one of those marvels of balletic NASA precision. Except it wasn't a NASA spacecraft that splashed back to Earth on Thursday.

It was the Dragon, built by a private company called SpaceX.

"Welcome home, baby," exulted Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, after the nine-day mission ended without a hitch. "It's like seeing your kid come home."

We share his excitement. The Dragon's flawless performance thrilled space exploration fans around the world, including, we're sure, President Barack Obama, the first Trekker in the White House.



The success of the mission -- the first of a dozen International Space Station cargo delivery flights SpaceX plans to make for NASA -- is a huge boost for Obama's space program reboot.

Quick flashback to 2010: Obama canceled a planned 2020 U.S. moon mission and yanked NASA funding for the rocket that was supposed to take astronauts there. He said he'd outsource some of the spacecraft business to commercial space companies because they are more innovative, nimble and cost-conscious than NASA.

Critics detected a plummeting sky. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, warned that Obama's plan could doom the U.S. to a "long downhill slide to mediocrity."

Earth to Armstrong and other skeptics: SpaceX engineers took only four years to develop Dragon from a blank sheet of paper to its first mission. Amazingly, this flight was the first time that the Dragon's rendezvous system was used in space.

Credit Musk, the Internet billionaire, for creating a lean, nimble SpaceX corporate culture that delivers largely on time and within budget. NASA is known for neither.

Musk, who co-founded PayPal, told us in 2010 that one of the most vital innovations for the commercial space program would be to scrap NASA's system of guaranteeing contractors a profit beyond whatever costs they run up. That just guarantees companies will find the most expensive way to do something and then milk it for as long as possible.

By contrast, commercial companies, operating on fixed-price, pay-for-performance contracts, should find cheaper, more reliable ways to explore space.

Credit, too, NASA with overseeing the Dragon mission by nimbly getting out of SpaceX's way. NASA allowed SpaceX "to set the design, establish test procedures, check prototypes and take the lead in determining details of manufacturing hardware," The Wall Street Journal reported.

In other words, NASA set goals and let SpaceX figure a way to achieve them.

Yes, we know that sending an unmanned spacecraft to the space station is a been-there-done-that feat; but SpaceX, and other private spacecraft companies, have plans for splashier space exploits.

Musk envisions a manned Mars mission, possibly within a decade. He said the Dragon flight "was a crucial step and makes the chances of becoming a multiplanet species more likely."

A multiplanet species.

We like the sound of that. The signals look promising that SpaceX and its commercial competitors can make it so.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune distributed by MCT Information Services

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