Miles O’Brien on SpaceX Launch: Space for the Rest of Us

Courtesy: NASA

Updated 2:10 p.m. ET

Space is hard and unforgiving and there is still a lot of challenging work ahead for the SpaceX Dragon team. I would not pop the champagne corks just yet. But this is a moment to savor.

For the first time since Atlantis’* wheels stopped on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, a U.S. built spacecraft is back in Mach 25 motion – on its way to meet up with the International Space Station.

Atlantis landed 42 years and one day after Neil Armstrong first left his footprints on the moon, and the J.D. Salinger of the Apollo astronaut corps has been very vocal in his opposition and skepticism about this new course in space.

But anyone who claims they are interested in the exploration of the Final Frontier must applaud this endeavor.

It has now been more than fifty years since human beings first flew to space and little more than 500 of them have been there. Talk about the ultimate elite club.

It is, uh, high time that ended and that will never happen if the government runs its space enterprise the way it has up until now: with cost-plus contracts that provide no incentive for the private sector to think about efficiencies.

NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program – or COTS – literally turns COST inside out – cutting fixed price deals with private companies to perform a specific task: fly safely to the ISS, be grappled and berthed in order to deliver cargo, and then return to earth in tact.

Supporters of this new approach to space contracting say it is tantamount to subsidizing nascent airlines in the barnstorming days by giving them contracts to fly the mail. The government didn’t tell Henry Ford how to build his Tri-Motor, but the mail those planes carried was an effective taxpayer tool to encourage a whole new industry – eventually making it possible for millions of people to board planes with as much fanfare as if they were buses – and then moan if they are five minutes late pushing back from the gate.

It would be nice if space travel could be that routine some day. And the Shuttle, a vehicle that I love and miss, was never going to get us there.

But things started looking a little brighter in the wee hours of this morning when Falcon 9 left launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral.

There is, of course, a lot more to do in space in the next few days. The Dragon capsule must rendezvous with the ISS, fly in formation safely and then sidle up close enough to be grasped by the ISS robot arm. Tough stuff. But nothing in space is easy.

Dragon’s first close encounter with ISS will happen on Friday, May 25th – a fitting moment as it will be the 51st anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s audacious, historic speech to a joint session of Congress that set the US on its course to the moon.

“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space,” said Kennedy, “and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

“It will not be one man going to the moon…it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

It is time now to pass the torch to a new generation of space explorers who will find the challenge is in making spaceflight not so expensive to accomplish. And if they succeed, maybe all of us will get to go ourselves.

*Correction: In an earlier version of this article the last space shuttle orbiter was misidentified as Endeavour.

Check out NewsHour’s previous coverage of the SpaceX mission:
SpaceX Boldly Looks to Blast ‘Millions of People to Mars’

Watch SpaceX Boldly Looks to Blast ‘Millions of People to Mars’ on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

SpaceX Readies for Historic Launch

Watch SpaceX Readies for Launch; Dragon Capsule Seat Showdown on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.