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For those that want to relive the experience of success, SpaceX has posted a short highlight video of last week’s successful test flight of Falcon 9/Dragon capsule.
It is difficult to overstate the importance or magnifience of this achievement, accomplished not by a government but by a private company. As SpaceX rightly brags on its website:
This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from Earth orbit. It is a feat previously performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.
What I find even more telling is how quickly SpaceX got this done. The first launch attempt of their first rocket, Falcon 1, took place in March of 2006. About that same time they began work on Falcon 9, and were able to successfully fly its first mission only four years later. Contrast that with NASA. President Bush proposed building a replacement for the shuttle in 2004, and six years later all NASA could do was fly a mockup of Ares I/Orion, not the actual article. And that leaves out NASA’S numerous previous attempts to build a shuttle replacement that spent billions, and never did more than produce pretty powerpoint presentations.
SpaceX’s speed of operation (a sure sign of efficiency) is reminiscent of the early days of the space age. Then, NASA might have laid out the overall plan, but everything was built by private companies, all used to fighting for profits and market share. None could afford a leisurely pace, nor could they afford to do things badly. If they did either, their business would suffer. As a result, the United States was able to go from having no ability to put anything in orbit to putting its first man in space in less than three years, and was able to follow that up with the first manned lunar mission only seven years later.