Archive for May 26, 2012
Write down this date. The human adventure off the Earth has begun in earnest.
In a triumph of free enterprise, a private corporation has successfully sent a supply ship to the International Space Station.
We knew this day would come. In his 1968 motion picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey, visionary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick showed us a Pan-Am flight to an orbital space station. For those too young to remember, back in the 1960s, Pan American Airways was a major commercial air line. Pan-Am ceased operations in 1991. But before that, following the release of Kubrick’s movie, they had been accepting reservations for flights to the Moon.
The reality so far is much less grand, but the longest journeys begin with a single step. Since 2009, newly-appointed NASA director Charles F. Bolden Jr. has advocated encouraging commercial enterprise to replace the canceled U.S. space shuttle program. Without a shuttle, America and the world are dependent upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry personnel to the space station, and uncrewed Progress rockets for supplies. Russia had an exclusive lock on flights to ISS. No more. On May 25, 2012, at 12:02 p.m. Eastern Time, a private spacecraft funded by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk docked with the International Space Station, carrying a shipment of supplies. The new Dragon spaceship from SpaceX can now supplement Progress supply flights, and, within three or four years, is expected to carry up to seven crewmembers at a time.
This is not the first commercial spaceflight. On October 4, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the first Sputnik launch, the Ansari X Prize was won by a privately-designed and constructed manned spaceship. The X Prize offered ten million dollars to the first non-governmental organization that could send a manned reuseable craft to the edge of space, defined as an altitude of 100 kilometers or 60 miles — and then do it again, within the space of a few days. The winning craft, SpaceShipOne, was designed by legendary aircraft developer Burt Rutan, and funded by eccentric billionaire Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. Branson and Rutan have gone on to create Virgin Galactic, a company that will soon be providing joyrides into space for a mere $100,000 or so per ticket.
We are about to step off the shores of our little world into an enormous ocean. Are we ready for it? (more…)