Early Friday morning when astronaut Don Pettit grabbed hold of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the space station’s robot arm, and I sat at my desk staring at the picture-perfect image on my monitor, a surge of emotions washed over me.
It was an incredible moment, when a private company had launched its own rocket and its own spacecraft into Earth orbit, and then flown its cargo ship to within a few feet of the International Space Station, accomplishing what only national governments, with all that that implies, had done before.
When it was confirmed that Dragon was locked in place at the station’s Harmony node, well, I’ll admit it, that’s when I actually felt the first hint of tears welling up inside of me. This was a big deal – not only for our space program, but for the history of our nation.
Unfortunately not everyone thinks the same way.
Some say it’s no big deal because all SpaceX did was something NASA first did during the Gemini program in 1965. I say YOU try to launch a spacecraft to a precise spot in low Earth orbit next to a space station with six human lives on board, with the whole world watching, and then tell me it was no big deal.
Some say this wasn’t a pure commercial, private effort because taxpayer money paid for it. I say so what if taxpayer money is involved? The way NASA is contracting with SpaceX for these services is completely different than the usual way it’s done, and that means that any way you slice this, as an average taxpayer, I’m getting more bang for my buck, and that’s a big deal.
Some say Elon Musk is a billionaire, so why doesn’t he pay for all of this himself. Some say that when SpaceX becomes profitable it should pay back all of the money NASA gives them, with interest. Some say this week’s success is a fluke and won’t soon be repeated. Some say private industry will never be able to do what NASA can. Some point to this mission and credit the most recent President Bush for supporting the idea of commercial space as part of canceling the space shuttle. Some point to this mission and credit President Obama for supporting the idea of commercial space as part of canceling Constellation.
Cliché alert: It seems it’s true that you can’t please everybody.
In my opinion, if you strip out the complexities created by all the technical skepticism, hidden agendas, class warfare, disparaging rhetoric and counterproductive politics that are tearing our nation apart, then you get an awe-inspiring, made-only-in-America story that is profound in what it represents and worthy of reaction that leads one to shed a tear of joy:
A guy comes along and wants to build a rocket. He thinks space is cool and represents our future as a species. He believes the rest of the world should see it that way too. He is confident he knows a better way to do business in space than the way he’s seen that others have been doing it for years.
So he puts some money together, assembles a team, locates a place to work, designs the necessary hardware, tests it, fails, tries again, fails again, but keeps at it through difficult times until he and his team gets it right and begins enjoying success after success.
Ten years after it all began they launch a rocket called Falcon 9 for the third time. On top of the rocket is a spacecraft called Dragon, which is making its second flight. The rocket is named after a fictional space cruiser piloted by a guy who apparently doesn’t shoot first. The cargo ship is named after a song about something that is impossible to believe could be real but is.
The launch is spectacular and makes news around the world. The ship safely arrives at the International Space Station, delivering its cargo of food, a new laptop computer and a few as-yet unidentified surprises for the six crewmembers onboard. It’s the first time a private company has done what only national governments have done before. There is much rejoicing on the ground – champagne all around.
But the story isn’t finished. The ship still must safely return to Earth. Then another rocket and cargo ship must be prepared for a launch in just a couple of months, and also have a successful mission – followed by another, and another, and another.
At some point there will be failures to overcome. New competitors will enter a market that is still in search of more customers and still must prove it can be profitable. There will be other challenges that can’t be predicted.
And all of this must be done as the technical skepticism, hidden agendas, class warfare, disparaging rhetoric and counterproductive politics that are tearing our nation apart continues. It’s a big job, but so far Elon Musk and his SpaceX team are proving they are up to the task.
So to a guy who has followed the space program all his life and understands the complexities involved in ways he sometimes has difficulty expressing, I appreciate how special that moment was early Friday, when once again we witnessed space history being made.
Actually, truth be told, it really wasn’t a big deal. It was a heckuva deal.