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The real human exploration of the solar system began on September 15, 2021

Falcon 9 at T+13 seconds

Capitalism in space: First the news: On September 15, 2021 SpaceX successfully placed four civilians into orbit using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

Thus began the first private manned orbital mission in space, planned to last three days and reach an altitude of 595 kilometers or 370 miles, the highest any person has flown in space in decades.

The first stage, on its third flight, successfully landed for reuse. The Dragon capsule, Resilience, was on its second manned flight. The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

31 China
23 SpaceX
15 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 34 to 31 in the national rankings.

Now the significance: There was one moment about five minutes after lift off that revealed the fundamental difference between this real flight into space and the short suborbital hops that Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did in July.

The three most critical moments of any launch had just been completed. The first stage engines had cut off, the first stage had separated successfully, and the single upper stage engine had ignited. It was now lifting the capsule towards orbit, with the only major technical task left were its engine cut off and the separation of the Dragon capsule.

At that moment John Insprucker, principal integretion engineer for SpaceX and frequent host during its launch live streams, made a quick comment that was clearly meant to illustrate the vast difference in achievement between this flight and those two July suborbital flights. He said,

Dragon at 193 kilometers
Dragon at 193 kilometers.

Also notice we’re really up there now, well past 100 kilometers.

The rocket, as shown in the screen capture to the right, was at that moment at 193 kilometers altitude, almost twice as high as achieved by either suborbital flight. And while those hops were at five minutes already on wrapping up their flights, the Inspiration4 passengers on Dragon were only beginning their journey, planned to last another three days and reach an elevation of 595 kilometers, about six times higher than either Blue Origin’s New Shepard or Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity.

In other words, Insprucker was gently hinting to the world: “This is a real spaceflight. Those were just quick joy rides.”

And he was right. Neither New Shepard nor Unity can do anything to explore or settle the solar system. All they can do is give their passengers a quick thrill and the right to brag that for a few minutes they experienced weightlessness and got into space.

The Inspiration4 crew instead will actually be in space, for days, brought there by a rocket that can launch real payloads into orbit and make possible the initial exploration of the solar system.

The difference is fundamental. The former can’t get us anywhere. The latter is actually doing so.

That this mission is for profit also means that the realm of outer space has finally been freed — at least for now — from the tentacled control of government. That control, while successful in beginning the exploration of space, has done little but stymie exploration since the 1970s. For the half century that followed humans have literally gone no where in space, with little technical innovation and no real efficiencies developed. Instead, a lot of money has been wasted going around and around the Earth for little gain. Even now the U.S. government is wasting billions on a rocket (SLS) that will never get us anywhere because it costs too much and simply can’t launch frequently enough to accomplish anything.

For the past half century, the only answer to that government’s bad decisions was to lobby to try to make it do something different. None of that lobbying or any of the big space program proposals put forth by presidents changed anything. The money continued to be wasted, with proposal after proposal and project after project dying stillborn.

We now have a better answer to government’s failures. We can ignore it, and go into space ourselves, without their hindrance. The possibilities of that freedom are endless. Expect many more such flights, with each pushing the envelope of space exploration so that space customers can go farther and faster and with greater capability, as quickly as possible.

World government spent the last half century dithering in space. Freedom will put humans on the Moon and Mars in probably less than the next two decades. And it will do it for pennies on the dollar.

Whether this freedom to fly will last remains unknown. Our society no longer honors freedom or the right to challenge government. Worse, our government is now very powerful, and does not like its power threatened. This flight threatens that control. Do not be surprised if many in government and their pro-government allies begin to marshal their forces to squelch what SpaceX and many other private space companies now want to achieve.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Jeff Wright

    I wish you would bash SLS…it is our national rocket.I regret my last post. I have an unpleasant memory of John McCain’ role against NASA

  • Col Beausabre

    Jeff Wright – Explicate

  • MDN

    Another point that differentiates this flight from the New Glenn or Unity joy rides is that the crew experienced 9 full minutes of 3 to 4 G acceleration, twice the zero G freefall time either of those flights were able to relish. And now, as Bob already pointed out they get to luxuriate in 3 full days at zero G before another E ticket experience coming back to Earth.

    That is quite a ride!

  • Jeff Wright

    I tried a post on the previous page on this mission. Richard M point out that the pad was gov’t. The cupola is built more like a WW II pill-box that Dragon’s fisheye by comparison. Where Mr. Z and I part company is in gov’ts role, Beausabre. I related a memory of a hearing with McCain asking about China, when some Cato type mentioned that we didn’t need to answer one socialist program with another-likening our NASA guys with chi-coms..” McCain thought it a “good point.” It wasn’t. He just wanted to starve NASA while heaping tax dollars on his fight jock friends. Of course he hates rockets having one fly deep up his tailpipe. Must have left a scarred-colon

  • Gary


    Which aspect of NASA is more important to you – it’s existence as a source of “good jobs” for the folks of Northern Alabama or it’s role in getting humans into space. It sure seems to be much more effective at the first part than the second.

    I mean I get it in one respect. I grew up in a family in which the older generation worshiped Roosevelt and the CCC and WPA. But, that’s just not a sustainable economic model. It didn’t even really work for FDR as it was WWII which really pulled us out of the Depression. It created “work” for some poor folks, some of whom were my ancestors who worked on the TVA dam projects. If not for WWII, we likely would have become a full-fledged banana republic and collapsed under the weight of government spending. If the current trend continues, that’s where we are headed today. You just can’t put everyone on the government payroll.

  • Mark

    I agree with Bob that September 15th, 2021 is one for the history books.

    I believe future historians will bracket that grand achievement for humanity with the dismaying date of August 31, 2021. On Aug 31, Biden’ gave an accusatory, dishonest defense of his cowardly Afghanistan Surrender. That Surrender was proof positive that the Global American Empire that bestrode the world since 1945 is dead.
    I for one will not forget the 13 who died at Abbey Gate, nor all the American political elites with blood on their hands.
    There is a song with that phrase that just came out:

    Please play it. Cry a tear of Joy for the birthday of our Spacefaring Civilization.
    Cry another for the 13 of Abbey Gate

  • Ron Desmarais

    Bob, while I agree with your enthusiasm it is tempered by the following:
    1) You still need to get the government’s approval for a launch license which gives them ultimate ability to delay and undermine progress (let’s see how long it takes SpaceX to get approval for the first Starship/Super Heavy launch from Boca).

    2) We are currently dependent on SpaceX because they are the only source. If we were to loose SpaceX due to a mishap or worse we are back to having nothing. Boeing and Blue Origin have been major disappointments, and with Boeing using non-reusable boosters that is only a half-option.

    Unfortunately we will continue be at risk until we have at least two or three suppliers who can routinely get to orbit at a reasonable cost (reusable systems). The sooner this happens the better.

  • CBMTTek

    The actual space flight is of major significance. However, there is a much more important item that is overlooked.

    SpaceX managed to get through the FAA licensing process for launching passengers to an orbital altitude. Previous human space flights had crew, not passengers. The licensing regulations are much stricter for passengers.

    Combine this with the progress on Starship, and NY to Tokyo in 45 minutes is just around the corner. If SpaceX is successful in building a 100 passenger spacecraft that can operate point to point, the reliability of their vehicles will only improve. Moving humans from point to point on the Earth safely will have the effect of reducing government licensing requirements. Demonstrate the technology is as reliable as conventional aircraft, and the environmental (NEPA) requirements will go from Environmental Impact Statement to Categorically Excluded.

    The (hopefully) inevitable outcome of yesterday’s launch is an overall reduction in government induced delays.

    That is, in my opinion, the main reason why human exploration of the universe began on 9/15.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Did they make it to their planned 575 km orbital altitude yet?

    As of 10:30 am could not find any news of that. Expect that there will not be wall to wall coverage as I expect they are trying tactics from Heinlein’s Man Who Sold The Moon and good for them for doing that.

    Always glad to hear “the voice of SpaceX” , John Innsbrucker.

    Thinking about if interesting science could be done in that Cupola with a high end Celestron telescope? Seems to me that one value of that new found freedom could be the freedom to do something that “everybody knows” won’t work and prove them wrong.

    Looking forward to the concluding 5th episode on NetFlix once they get home.

  • That control, while successful in beginning the exploration of space, has done little but stymie exploration since the 1970s.

    That is because the space program, up through Apollo, was directly connected to areas – foreign-policy, defense – that are within the proper purview and the capability of the Federal government to manage. The objectives with respect to those areas were clear, and kept our leaders focused upon doing the job right.

    Post-Apollo, that clear focus was lost, and the mismanagement – much of it from Congress, not only NASA management – piled up. The spaceflight/research agency began to host chapels for the Climate Change Cult and identity-politics (“Muslim outreach”) devotees … when it was not being used as the facilitator of jobs programs.

    And it did not help that the nation became obsessively risk-averse in the same time frame.

  • Richard M

    “2) We are currently dependent on SpaceX because they are the only source. If we were to loose SpaceX due to a mishap or worse we are back to having nothing.”

    This is a good point. What if (God forbid) Elon dies tomorrow?

    This is why I am left to hope that Rocket Lab and Relativity really can move into the (fully reusable) medium lift market successfully, and build on that to become something even more. I don’t have much confidence in Blue Origin ever amounting to anything.

  • Lee Stevenson

    Hi guys…. Just a quick note/comment …( And huge respect to SpaceX … They have indeed opened a new chapter in space..)

    All this talk of 20 minutes from New York to Paris etc. Have any of you guys actually flown trans continental? Arrive at the gate 2 hours before flight, security, passport controle, covid test check, vaccination check, baggage claim… At least 3 hours of jumping thru hoops ( if my recent visit to the UK is anything to go by…. Trans continental can only be worse… Especially with your good old TSA!)

    Im always underwhelmed by all the claims of rapid trans Atlantic travel. Knock an hour or 2 off the journey by all means. But try and knock an hour or 2 off the hellish airport experience and I’m all in!

  • Mike Kimm

    You can ride on go-karts with Virgin or Blue Origin or an Indy Car with SpaceX.

  • Star Bird

    Back in 1969 when they landed on the Moon Tang was what the Astronuants Drank

  • James Street

    Musk’s entire organization is first class. His media team that did the webcast of the launch deserve an Emmy. Exciting stuff.

  • wayne

    tangential inquiry—
    Have you ever taken the train under the Channel?

    Mission Impossible
    “Red Light, Green Light” (The tunnel scene)

  • Jeff Wright

    To Gary. To say infrastructure spending isn’t sustainable is missing the mark. Forever Wars not NASA is what needs cutting.

  • Edward

    A friend of mine, Jack, just said, “finally, somebody’s doing something.” Meaning, of course, that NASA has not been getting much done. Jack is not a space enthusiast, getting his space news only from the mainstream media, but he has figured out that our expansion into space has been slow.

    Gary wrote: “it was WWII which really pulled us out of the Depression. It created “work” for some poor folks, some of whom were my ancestors who worked on the TVA dam projects.

    It wasn’t that there was more work building war materials that ended the U.S. Great Depression, it was the cessation of government changing business law all the time. While the laws were in flux, businesses could not make long-term plans. Once Congress was distracted from the depression by the war, the laws stopped changing, and businesses could once again make long-term plans and be confident that hiring employees would pay off.

    WPA may have looked like a good idea, especially to those employed, but it prevented them from being employed in productive jobs that added to the economy. Instead, their wages were paid from taxes that reduced the amount of productivity that could have been done had the population and businesses had the extra money.

    Those who admired FDR’s work programs only saw what was happening and did not see the lost opportunity costs of those programs. Economist Frederic Bastiat wrote about such unseen lost opportunities, similar to the opportunities lost to the U.S. by the reaction to the Great Depression and even by WWII. (Our reaction to the Wuhan flu has caused many similar lost opportunities throughout the world’s economy, and can also be seen in space programs around the world.)

  • pzatchok

    I do not see a problem with being dependent on Space X.

    Its not like they only have one rocket ready to fly at any time, Or have only one launch facility.

    They have three launch facilities plus they are working on an additional option of a sea launch.
    They have an active working assembly line of Falcon 9 first stages and Dragon capsules.
    If Nasa wants to have an emergency Falcon9/Dragon waiting and ready in Florida then all it needs is to rent an old used one and put it in a storage building. But I just do not see Nasa as being worried about that yet.

    Space X would have to actually be ordered grounded nationwide for there to be a real problem. I just can not see that at all.

    As it stands now there is just not enough business for their to be a definite real need for a direct Space X competitor.

    Asking for a second Space X to be built is starting to sound like a complaint that Space X is getting all the work and we just can’t have them making all the money.

  • knock an hour or 2 off the hellish airport experience and I’m all in!
    Indeed. My drive/fly boundary is a 12 hour drive. Less than that and the ancillary hassle of flying is not worth it to me.

    Airplanes are just flying Greyhound bus [deleted] these days. Trans-Atlantic flights are awful (Lufthansa is the best of a bad bunch). “Your overused seat cushion can be used as an anchor as there is no air left in it.” I’ve never been trans-Pacific, but it must be just that much worse. I would be perfectly willing to split flight time with airport hassle time to get a total travel time of six hours to London or Frankfurt.

  • markedup2: You have been a regular commenter recently. You should know the rules. I have deleted the obscenity. I should suspend you for a week but instead will let you off with this warning: You will be banned if you do it again.

  • You can ride on go-karts with Virgin or Blue Origin or an Indy Car with SpaceX.

    Or to put it another way, a three-hour cruise on the S.S. Minnow, or a three-day/five-star cruise on the S.S. Dragon.

  • Oops, screwed up the em-tag again. My apologies, Robert … I’m normally more careful these days.

    Apologies like this, though, are better than seeing this site chained to Disqus or another comment system that requires registration.

  • “Also notice we’re really up there now, well past 100 kilometers.”

    Branson and Bezos could only be identified from dental records.

  • Lee Stevenson

    @wayne…. I’ve actually never taken the “Chunnel”, not for any particular reason, but it’s just never been an option in any of my travel plans… I have however, driven thru the longest ( I think ) tunnel in Sweden

    Which leads to the wonderful island of Muskö. Coincidentally, the island is host to Sweden’s largest submarine base, and the tunnel is easily flooded should it ever need to be.

    It also has the best fishing I ever had in my life, and is easily navigated by boat. As long as you keep out of the areas clearly marked “don’t come here, or we will shoot you”. ( Sweden is all about peace, love, and neutrality, but being so close to Russia, the military don’t mess about)

  • Lee Stevenson

    Another point about Muskö, ( a million miles away from the topic… But what the heck!) , The only place I’ve ever gone outside for my morning coffee and cigarette, and stood face to face with an Elk… ( Moose )… We looked each other in the eye for a second, then both walked away… Bejezus those buggers are huge.! I poured myself another coffee to replace the one I had shaken away, and smoked 2 cigarettes, contemplating my tiny place in the cosmos. Happy days indeed!

  • wayne

    John Insprucker

    “… retired from the Air Force with a flawless record of 30 rocket launch successes and 9 satellites delivered and operating on orbit. He culminated his career with a direct role in setting a new record of 44-straight successful launches at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC)….”

  • wayne


    Driving the Eisenhower Pass (Interstate-70) in Colorado
    The Highwayman ( July 13, 2011)
    (Music by Joe Satriani)

    “The Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, about 60 miles west of Denver on Interstate 70, sits at an elevation of 11,013 feet at the East Portal and 11,158 feet at the West Portal. The Tunnel traverses through the Continental Divide at an average elevation of 11,112 feet. When originally opened in the 1970s, the tunnel was not only the highest vehicular tunnel in the U.S, but at that time it was also the highest in the world.”

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “I do not see a problem with being dependent on Space X.

    Ron Desmarais was making the same point that the Air Force had with having only one source of launch vehicle. The Air Force preferred a choice between three vehicles, but eventually had to settle for two.

    Another benefit to having multiple companies supplying launch services (or other services or products) is that the competition should drive down the price tag for launching to orbit. Once Boeing’s Starliner is operational and can give similar service as Dragon, then they may be able to supply passenger service for less than SpaceX has charged for this first flight for a non-government customer.

    Blue Origin’s reusable orbital booster should be operational within two years, and Sierra Space (subsidiary to Sierra Nevada) plans to derive a manned spacecraft from their cargo spacecraft, in a similar way that SpaceX did with Dragon. This should also increase the competition and put pressure on prices.

  • sippin_bourbon


    Rocketlab just recently launched a USSF payload.
    So for small payloads, the option is there.

    To the larger conversation, this is another step to a viable commercial space industry.
    One of many.

    However, the government still has the power to strangle it if they choose..
    For instance, the FAA is still resisting certification of the Electron to fly from Wallops.
    They are slow walking Starship certification in Texas.

    But the real threat will be when profits are shown publicly for the first time.
    There will be a cry to tax it. The Congress’ real power.
    And they have the ability to tax it until it becomes stagnant.

    Only the US Government can tax and subsidize things at the same time, to create the winners and losers that THEY choose.

  • Edward

    Rocket Lab is no longer the only option in the small launch field. Other companies are already operational and more are on the way. In order to remain competitive, Rocket Lab is already working on improvements to their Electron rocket and is working on a second rocket design.

    There are also three companies currently working on orbital space stations/habitats. Axiom, Ixion, and Sierra Space. These commercial space stations will greatly enhance our ability to explore the solar system. Last week, commercial space had its own Yuri Gagarin moment. SpaceX presented the Kennedy-style moment when it announced it was going to Mars. I am confident that once SpaceX gets to Mars, other companies will get serious about going back to the Moon and will then move on to their own Martian goals.

    SpaceX makes these impressive advances in rocketry and space exploration, because they are serious about their goals, and Musk learned an important lesson in quality assurance when Tesla, in its early days, had to recall every car it sold, at great expense to the company.

  • Vladislaw

    “New Shepard nor Unity can do anything to explore or settle the solar system”

    Why should they be able to do that? They were not designed to do that. Why can’t a car be firetruck? Because it is not designed to be a firetruck. Calling out a product or service that was not designed to something is being disingenuous at best and outright silly at the worst. “Chevy Imapala nor a ford fiesta can do anything to explore the solar system” – that makes the same sense as your statement.

    They were designed to give customers an option to visit the k line without costing you MILLIONS of dollars and months of training.
    They both have achieved the goals they were designed to do.

  • Questioner

    The problem with Elon Musk is that his kind of futurism has no deep spiritual-philosophical basis. On the contrary, it’s pretty flat. The deepest thing that he has to offer is the consciousness (of man) must not become extinct and therefore Mars must be colonized. Well, it is at least an attempt to give it a deeper foundation, leaving open why the permanent existence of human consciousness in itself has value.

    His visions of the future are purely technological and despite the green paint that gives his “electrical” plans, they continue to deform and exploit nature. But not only nature, but also people who, with Musk’s technology, are becoming more and more dependent on technology. Musk helps dehumanize the world.

    As I said, I’ve never heard that Musk, for example, thinks about the conservation of endangered species and counteracts increasing consumerism with its enormous waste production or advocates a resource-saving mode of production.

    In summary: Musk’s own “ideology” as a driver for his doing is not very convincing.

  • Edward

    Questioner wrote: “The problem with Elon Musk is …

    Oh, my! Musk is imperfect, unlike most other people? Well, at least he only has one problem, and not two.

    In summary: Musk’s own ‘ideology’ as a driver for his doing is not very convincing.

    One of the nice things about freedom and liberty is the lack of a requirement to be convincing to others in order to explore or try new things.

  • sippin_bourbon


    Yes there are other small companies.
    The difference is that Rocketlab (RKLB) has already delivered for USSF.

    The other small launchers have not yet delivered consistently for the other customers, and until able, would likely not be considered by USAF/USSF.

    “I am confident that once SpaceX gets to Mars, other companies will get serious about going back to the Moon and will then move on to their own Martian goals.”

    I think we will be established on the Moon before we are established on Mars. It has always made sense as a proving ground for the technology. And I think SpaceX (SX) will play a large role there if they can keep the HLS deal.

    RKLB already has several Lunar contracts on the board.

    Full disclosure: I own some RKLB stock. Could not resist the opportunity.
    Full concession: RKLB is not SX and and will likely never displace SX. But with a little more maturity, they might be to SX as Apple is to Microsoft. (just a thought, based on nothing more than musings infused with an adult beverage. No need to over analyze).

  • Edward

    You wrote: “The difference is that Rocketlab (RKLB) has already delivered for USSF. The other small launchers have not yet delivered consistently for the other customers, and until able, would likely not be considered by USAF/USSF.

    I didn’t realize that your point was a non sequitur specific to options for USSF as opposed to the more general customer base that pzatchok, Ron Desmarais, and I were discussing.

    If you are suggesting that the USSF has only one option for launching small satellites, that would be not completely correct, as they still have the more expensive Falcons and Vulcan available (Atlas has been fully booked).

    I think we will be established on the Moon before we are established on Mars. It has always made sense as a proving ground for the technology. And I think SpaceX (SX) will play a large role there if they can keep the HLS deal.

    This has long been an argument for going to the Moon before going to Mars. I have made this argument. However, we are in a new paradigm, where space exploration is concerned. With commercial space, one company can work toward one goal, and another company can work toward another goal, and we have a company that is developing a rocket for going to Mars. The funding pool is potentially greater for the commercial space industry than for NASA. With government space, we saw only one Moon vs. Mars goal at a time. For a time, we had three manned-space goals at NASA: Space Shuttle operations, ISS research, and Constellation development for a return to the Moon.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Edward, My original comment was in response to this:
    “Ron Desmarais was making the same point that the Air Force had with having only one source of launch vehicle. The Air Force preferred a choice between three vehicles, but eventually had to settle for two.”

    You referenced Vulcan, but it has yet to actually fly.

  • Edward

    Incorrect. I referenced Atlas and Delta. Eventually the Air Force also had Falcon.

    It is the Space Force that is counting on Vulcan, as well as Falcon, but this is because they have rejected New Glenn and OmegA for the next few years.

    After the Space Shuttle virtually destroyed the American space launch industry, the Air Force initiated the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle project in the 1990s to create launch vehicles for them. This resulted in an Atlas and a Delta rocket for their use. Eventually, because the Air Force was such an unreliable monopsony, the two rocket companies formed a combined company to help alleviate some of the losses incurred when one rocket was not launched often enough to pay for pad maintenance and other fixed costs.

    This also resulted in ULA having two contracts with the Air Force, one for fixed costs and another for the more variable per-unit costs. Many people misinterpreted the first contract to be a subsidization of ULA, but it was intended to make sure that launch pad maintenance was done even when there were long periods of time between launches at a pad. The Air Force-induced high prices for these rockets drove commercial companies to other countries for their launches, and it wasn’t until the U.S. government supported commercial space launches that the ULA monopoly on U.S. launches was finally broken with a third rocket from a second company.

  • sippin_bourbon

    I am familiar with the history.

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