The privately-funded capsule SpaceX Dragon reentered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean yesterday afternoon, becoming the first spacecraft launched, orbited, and successfully recovered from orbit after reentry by a private company.
The size, ambition, and glamor of NASA and Soviet manned missions in the 1960s made space exploration synonymous with massive governmental programs. In the case of NASA, of course, the work was always a private-public partnership, with companies, independent laboratories, and university research programs all vying for lucrative contracts.
Despite its private funding, Dragon partakes of this tradition. Contracts with NASA, ESA, and other governmental space programs will furnish SpaceX with its chief source of income for the program, and the company adopted NASA technology (itself developed by private contractors) for crucial systems of the spacecraft, such as the Common Berthing System that allows Dragon and other craft to dock with the International Space Station.
Long before the first human orbited the Earth, science fiction’s future was consistently the province of private industry, as in the pioneering 1950 spaceflight movie Destination Moon, in which a privately-funded nuclear rocket is launched against government orders. Robert Heinlein, who worked on the screenplay for Destination Moon, published that same year a novel called The Man Who Sold the Moon, in which a disruptive tycoon sets off a lunar diamond rush in hopes of gaining proprietary control over the Moon itself—compared to which, SpaceX’s plans for supplying the International Space Station and ferrying tourists into orbit seem tame and salutary.