Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its first rocket this week at Cape Canaveral. This, some claim, marks the start of commercial space flights.
Interestingly enough, science fictions writers such as Robert Heinlein wrote stories based on the premises that private companies would be the first into space and that space flight would become a profitable private industry. This latest effort and others shows that Heinlein was somewhat prophetic in this regard.
In many ways, commercialization of some aspects of space operations makes sense. After all, putting satellites in orbit and transporting people too and from the space station seem to fall nicely into the private sector fields of moving people and goods. Also, while this is rocket science, the basic technology is relatively old and moving people and stuff provides little in the way of new knowledge. This helps explain why NASA plans to move out of the transport business and back into exploration and space science. It certainly seems to be a good idea to let NASA focus on its primary mission and let private companies handle the day to day cargo and passenger transport.
Of course, there are some concerns about having private companies launching rockets. One is that this will not actually free up money for NASA. After all, while it is common to assume that the private sector always does things better and cheaper than the government, this is something that requires proof. Can commercial companies actually do what NASA did cheaper and more effectively? If the answer is “yes”, then it makes sense to save money by going with the private company (all other things being equal). If this is not the case, then this would make less sense and undercut one justification for the government paying private companies to do what NASA was doing.
A second concern is that private companies can go out of business. Suppose that we become dependent on a private company to transport people and cargo to and from orbit and the company goes bankrupt or decides to get out the business. This could be a serious problem. Of course, it can be argued that someone else would step in to take over. Also, the government could step back into its old role in this regard. At least once it acquired all the needed equipment.
A third concern is the matter of safety. As the BP incident showed, companies have a tendency to be more concerned about profits than with safety. As such, there is the reasonable concern that private space flight might maintain their rockets as some airlines maintain their planes, namely not all that well. Naturally, some might point out that the government had its own share of space disasters. However, these sometimes involved problems caused by private companies (such as the infamous O ring design flaw that doomed the Challenger).
While these concerns are worth considering, I do hope that commercial space flight becomes a reality. This is, in part, due to the fact that I am rather fond of science fiction and having greater activity in space simply appeals to me. I also favor it because this could provide a means by which the economy could grow for real (rather than “growing” via bubbles or financial witchcraft), thus providing more jobs. I also find it appealing because it could help us expand into space, thus decreasing the chance that we will be exterminated by a catastrophic event on earth.