Jump-Starting the Orbital Economy

Why NASA's plan to get out of the manned spaceflight business may (finally) make space travel routine
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Illustration by John Mattos

Two years ago deceased Star Trek actor James “Scotty” Doohan was granted one last adventure, courtesy of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. SpaceX, a privately funded company based in Hawthorne, Calif., had been formed in 2002 with the mission of going where no start-up had gone before: Earth orbit. In August 2008 SpaceX loaded Doohan’s cremated remains onto the third test flight of its Falcon 1, a liquid oxygen- and kerosene-fueled rocket bound for orbit. Yet about two minutes into the flight Doohan’s final voyage ended prematurely when the rocket’s first stage crashed into the second stage during separation. It was SpaceX’s third failure in three attempts.

Well, what did you expect? sneered old NASA hands, aerospace executives and the many others who hew to the conventional wisdom that safely ushering payloads and especially people hundreds of kilometers above Earth is a job for no less than armies of engineers, technicians and managers backed by billions in funding and decades-long development cycles. Space, after all, is hard. A small, private operation might be able to send a little stunt ship wobbling up tens of kilometers, as entrepreneur-engineer Burt Rutan did in 2004 to win the X-Prize. But that was a parlor trick compared with the kinds of operations NASA has been running over the years with the space shuttle and International Space Station. When you’re going orbital, 100 kilometers is merely the length of the driveway, at the end of which you’d better be accelerating hard toward the seven kilometers a second needed to keep a payload falling around Earth 300 kilometers up.

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