The Corner

Commercial Human Spaceflight Moves Forward (But the Debate over It Does Not)

Most people will recall that tomorrow, December 7, is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor (the 69th, to be exact). Less known is that it is the 38th anniversary of the launch of the last flight to the moon by men from Earth. (That we haven’t been back in almost four decades is a result of the same — nonpartisan — political wrangling that we’ve seen over the last ten months, ever since NASA’s new plans were rolled out.)

With a little luck, tomorrow may also become the future anniversary of the first flight and entry from orbit of a private space vehicle: It is the first day of a three-day window for Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to test-fly their so-called Dragon capsule, initially planned to deliver and return cargo to and from the International Space Station but with follow-on plans for using it to fly crew to and from as well, if Congress doesn’t foolishly starve it of funding. [update: SpaceX has announced that they are slipping the launch until at least Thursday, due to a nozzle issue on the upper stage.] If the flight is successful, it will be an interesting news story for a day or so, but it won’t much affect the often meretricious debate that has been going on all year over NASA’s new policy. If it fails, on the other hand, the failure will be seized upon by the detractors of NASA’s new direction as somehow proof that private companies aren’t up to the job.

One of the frustrating things about that “debate” has been the false anointing of SpaceX as the poster child and sole representative of commercial human spaceflight — see, for instance, the Wall Street Journal this morning. Note that there is no mention in that piece of the Boeing Corporation’s potential plans for a crew capsule, to go up on either the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V or Delta IV rockets, or SpaceX’s Falcon 9 (the same vehicle that is planned to launch the Dragon this week). Neither is mentioned Sierra Nevada Corporation’s “Dream Chaser” spaceplane, also planned to go up on an Atlas. This is because, unlike SpaceX, it is a lot harder for demagogues like Alabama’s Sen. Richard Shelby to characterize Boeing and ULA as “hobbyists in a garage.” Their existence remains inconvenient for those who want to continue to denigrate American private enterprise in favor of good old-fashioned government-fed pork, as the so-called “conservative” Republican delegation from Utah did a couple weeks ago.

Beyond that, it won’t be at all shocking if the very first flight of a new spacecraft doesn’t work. That’s why we have test flights — to understand new systems and wring the bugs out of them. To use such a failure to justify a return to a failed and expensive space policy that has been disastrous for the taxpayer and has trapped us in low earth orbit for almost 40 years would be a travesty. A lot will be riding on tomorrow’s launch attempt, but not as much as those protecting the status quo will say. But a successful flight, whether this week or even a few months from now, after a failure of this attempt, will be an important milestone in opening up space, both near and far, not just to NASA astronauts but, affordably, to humanity at large.

Rand Simberg blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.

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