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In one week, SpaceX is scheduled to ferry two astronauts to the International Space Station. The spacecraft (spaceship?) and booster rocket will be launched from the same place that shot Apollo 11 to the moon. And with nearly as much historic significance.

Really? Then why the hush in the media?

We are gratified to be able to answer that question: We don't know. But next Wednesday, if this launch goes as planned, the mission will mark the first time that a private company, not a government agency, has lifted mankind to space.

When Alan Shepard celebrated by hugging his wife, telling her she was holding the first man in space, Louise Shepard quipped: "Who let a Russian in here?"

Ah, yes, the Russians had beat us to space. Alan Shepard would be the first American in space, but not the first human. When the Soviet system was still in its 30s, it was potent and robust. It wouldn't break down until old age set in. But a better system, a free system, a capitalist system, continues to thrive.

Elon Musk is one of the most famous capitalists in the world today. He started out in the 1990s creating Web companies and such. He dabbled in this and that, sold off more thises and thats, created enough successful startups that he made two lists in Forbes recently: The list of World's Most Powerful People and the list of World's Richest People. Not bad for a 40-something.

The Washington Post reported that his friends and family protested when Elon Musk decided to pour $100 million into a new start-up space company, one that would shuttle astronauts with rockets that could be reused. Elon Musk's theory: Reusable rockets would reduce the cost of space flight a hundred-fold. Thus making it profitable.

And thus making it commercial.

Obviously, such a thing was unthinkable. Didn't Elon Musk watch the movies? The rockets, as expensive as they may be, are used up during launches, when they fall back into the ocean--if they aren't burned up on re-entry first. Nobody but nobody can land rockets after they've been used. Whaddaya gonna do, put wings and fins on the thing and guide it back down to a launch pad?

Young Mr. Musk didn't understand such things. He's no rocket scientist. He isn't even an engineer.

Note well: Space Exploration Technologies (aka SpaceX) has about 7,000 employees today. Some people just won't listen to reason and logic.

And it helps if such revolutionaries have good timing.

President Obama canceled a program for a new fleet of spacecraft back in 2010. The Constellation program was way over budget and way behind schedule. So NASA began to look around for other ways to get its people into space. The Russians, not the Soviets this time, were all too pleased to pick up hitchhikers, for a large fee and even larger photo ops. The Americans, always bragging on having set foot on the moon, were now begging rides. (Albeit on 1960s technology.)

But NASA had another option on the way. If only Boeing and Lockheed Martin could get all the stars aligned, as it were. Or maybe another company . . . .

Reports say that SpaceX had so many failings in the beginning that it almost went bust. Much like the American space program of the 1950s and '60s. How many rockets did the engineers of the Mercury Program blow up on the launch pad in the early days? No matter what the cowboys in NASA say, failure is always an option.

The visionaries at SpaceX supervised failure after failure. And it was designed that way. Another theory of its owners: If you don't have any failures, you aren't pushing the technology hard enough. To make it safe for humans, see how far the machinery can go--and how far it can't. And learn, learn, learn from all mistakes. Investigate everything.

"If there's a test program and nothing happens in that test program, I would say it's insufficiently rigorous," Elon Musk has said. "If there hasn't been hardware that's blown up on a test stand, I don't think you've tested it hard enough. You've got to push the envelope."

Now we're here.

If the weather holds, and all the engineers, doctors and technicians give their thumbs-up next Wednesday, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley--two veteran astronauts--will take off for space on a for-profit, privately owned, reusable commercial rocket.

Much like newspapers, as long as space companies make a profit, there will always be somebody willing to operate them. Come next Wednesday, if the weather holds, mankind will finally be going somewhere. Again. And it's about time.

Editorial on 05/20/2020

Print Headline: End of an era


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