It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation did a few days ago when it launched a space ship that docked with the international space station. It is as significant, in its way, as the first commercial airline flight in the U.S. which was undertaken in 1914 by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Boat Line. It heralds the moment when space flight is moving out of the domain of government and into the private sector, potentially opening vast new vistas of travel.
There are, to be sure, significant differences between the history of flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere and outside of it. The former was, from the start, a private undertaking launched not by the Theodore Roosevelt administration but by the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics. The latter was, famously, a NASA mission undertaken beginning in 1958 by an Eisenhower administration eager to match Soviet achievements in space. But aviation, too, received a significant boost from the government–aircraft design took a major leap forward because of the efforts of various air forces to build more efficient aircraft in World War I and thereafter, commercial airlines developed either under state ownership (as in Europe with the forerunners of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.) or with major state subsidies (as was the case in the U.S. where the Postal Service paid airlines to carry the mail).
After decades of government monopolization it appears that space flight is moving in the same direction as aviation, with NASA switching increasingly from an agency that does spacecraft design and launching in-house to one that provides subsidies to private companies such as a SpaceX to do the job themselves. To be sure, the U.S. military must and will remain a major player in space which has become vital for running communications and surveillance networks and could even be used to orbit strike platforms in the future. But the civilian role in space appears to be increasingly a joint venture between government and industry–and that is likely to prove a greater success in the long run than the exclusively NASA path which reached a dead end with the grounding of the last space shuttle last year.
It is good to see the rude energies of the private sector finally being directed beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. With passenger flights to space looming, the future of space travel looks bright for the first time since the launch of the initial space shuttle in 1982.