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The Mirky Future Of Commercial Spaceflight

May 26, 2012

The hardest half of the first commercial spaceflight mission was completed yesterday when the SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station 250 miles above Australia. The cargo will be unloaded and the capsule will return to Earth next week, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Low-Earth orbital missions have become fairly routine over the last 50 years, but this is the first time a private company has designed, built and launched a space vehicle into orbit, marking the beginning of a new era in spaceflight. SpaceX is slated for 12 more cargo deliveries to the ISS beginning in September and they hope to be ferrying astronauts by 2015.

As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see the time when NASA is no longer involved, private space travel becomes routine, and multiple companies compete for the business. I also see a scenario like this: The space station is low on provisions and desperately needs a new oxygen generator. NASA pays SpaceX the premium price for overnight delivery of these items. When the cargo ship arrives at the space station, the residents find that the oxygen generator was damaged in shipment and half of the provisions are missing. Getting dangerously low on oxygen, a crewmember places a call to SpaceX to complain. A computerized voice guides them through a menu of options. They press “4” to get the complaint department and are put on hold for an hour waiting for the next available operator who tells them it will be a week before another delivery can be made. The crewmember says, “Never mind. We’ll all be dead by then.” The operator thanks him for using SpaceX and hangs up.

While I applaud SpaceX for their recent success, modern history tells us that, anytime private enterprise monopolized an industry, safety and customer service have gone out the window and profit became the primary concern. Only time will tell if capitalism taints all the progress made by federally-controlled NASA.

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