Did a new era of spaceflight really just begin?

May 24, 2012: 11:48 AM ET

The launch of a privately built space craft this week may kick off a new, for-profit space race.

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor

SpaceXFORTUNE -- Tuesday morning, in the pre-dawn darkness off Cape Canaveral, a Falcon 9 rocket took to the sky, carrying with it a spacecraft called Dragon. The liftoff, capsule breakaway, and subsequent Earth orbit were in all ways routine. For the NASA support crew at Air Force Station Canaveral, nothing about the morning was extraordinary. But take a step back: That rocket, the Falcon, and capsule, the Dragon, were built by a private company called SpaceX. It's not the first time SpaceX has pierced the atmosphere, but this mission is more important, and ambitious, than all that came before it. It's an audition for NASA. If the Dragon capsule completes all its requisite tasks -- orbiting Earth, demonstrating its maneuverability and navigation systems, docking with the International Space Station (ISS), unloading its "nonessential" supplies, and returning to Earth (after two weeks it will splash down hundreds of miles off the Southern California coast) -- it will become NASA's primary low-orbit cargo system. Which means, yes, the true beginning of private industry in space.

The day of the launch, Elon Musk, SpaceX's co-founder (and the man behind Tesla Motors), compared the event to winning the Superbowl, which is fair -- it's the culmination of a monumental effort by the Hawthorne, California company's 1,800 employees. Musk then said something far more telling: "It is like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavor. That move dramatically accelerated the pace of advancement and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we're at a similar inflection point...". Also true, in a sense. NASA knew this day would come and embraced it wholeheartedly. Indeed, the SpaceX launch also represents a giant leap for NASA's own Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, the aim of which is to replace government-funded low Earth orbit transport (eg. the shuttle) to focus on deeper space (eg. Mars). But hang on a second. The Internet is a platform, the infrastructure of which already existed in theory if not in practice before the network of networks moved into the public sector, became the World Wide Web, and changed everything.

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A spacecraft isn't so simple. It's a mind-numbingly complex machine. The overhead is extremely high, the skills ridiculously specialized -- a rocket scientist's cred as uber-nerd is as deservedly true today as it was before the digital age. Will there really be spaceflight startups? The kind that begin in a garage and end up revolutionizing how we transport goods -- and maybe even people -- beyond the atmosphere? Well, yes. In fact, there already are.

In Denmark, two amateur rocketeers behind Copenhagen Suborbitals have hand-built what they call an "open source, donation funded, non-profit rocket." The goal is to send a man into space, and they are test launching the craft (without humans) this summer. A more game-changing -- though perhaps less immediately impressive -- low-orbit device is a standardized satellite that fits in the palm of your hand. Called a CubSat, 50 have reached space as stowaways on rockets since 2003. They are cheap (at $100,000 a comparative bargain), easy to build, and—most important of all—leave room for failure, which allows for creativity. It's a box that allows thinking outside, well, the box. An ambitious undergrad at California Polytechnic (one of the universities behind CubeSats) could design, build, and launch a satellite into space by the time she graduates.

What will these little cubes do once in orbit? So far, nothing revolutionary (taking photos, mostly) but the more accessible space becomes for everyone, not just those with the deepest pockets or largest government contracts, the greater to possibility for radical innovation on the order of the Internet. Maybe Musk was more right than he realized.

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