Thanksgiving was going to be a big day for SpaceX—the privately owned, Elon Musk-led space exploration company. SpaceX was set to launch its first satellite into geostationary orbit, in what Musk called his “toughest mission to date.” The maiden flight was originally scheduled for Monday evening, but pressure fluctuations in a liquid oxygen tank pushed the date back. But yesterday, out of an abundance of caution, the SpaceX team scrubbed the launch a second time, citing a desire to “take a closer look at the engines” and pushing the date back another “few days.” The caution is understandable—SpaceX can still properly be considered to be in “beta,” and the success or failure will color the way many perceive the fledgling private space company.The launch will be a big test for SpaceX, but that it’s even gotten this far shows just how much progress commercial space flight has made in recent years. The American government is taking notice, having just last week outlined a new policy encouraging the growth of the commercial space industry. The WSJ reports:
At least through the beginning of the next decade, the [new policy] aims to lock in current National Aeronautics and Space Administration priorities to rely on commercial rockets and spacecraft to deliver cargo and astronauts to the international space station.Under the new White House guidelines, the Pentagon also is required to allow less-expensive commercial launch providers to compete “on a level playing field” with legacy Air Force rockets built by a Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. joint venture.
NASA’s budget—as a percentage of the total federal budget—has steadily declined over the past fifty years. That’s led some, like pop-science maestro Neil Degrasse Tyson, to lament missed opportunities and advocate for a larger budget. But private companies are stepping up, putting price pressures on the building and launching of spacecraft. We should be encouraging more private investment, and to that end it looks like Washington is on the right track.[Liftoff of upgraded Falcon 9 spacecraft image courtesy of SpaceX]