WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It is no guarantee but a dragon may be just the thing to breathe fire into America's now dormant manned space program. I'm talking about the SpaceX Dragon, an unmanned capsule that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean Tuesday after ferrying supplies and experiments to and from the International Space Station. And SpaceX isn't stopping there. It wants to upgrade the capsule for human flight, perhaps as early as 2016.
SpaceX is shorthand for Space Exploration Technologies. It is one of two private companies hired by NASA to fill a void created with the mothballing of the aging space shuttle fleet. As a matter of adventure I hated to see the shuttle program end. There is nothing like having watched shuttle astronauts roar aloft from Cape Canaveral on a tower of flame, the rumble of the engines rolling across the sky until you could feel it in your bones.
NASA critics, though, have argued for decades that the space agency allowed its investment in the shuttle program to lock it into low earth orbit. Why not, critics said, let private enterprise take on that work so that NASA could focus on long range projects--like a manned mission to Mars or a permanent base on the moon.
In a roundabout way that may be happening--finally. No, no one is holding their breath for a manned trip to the Red Planet any time soon. But if it is ever to happen it will be because NASA finally ceded the cargo flights and shuttle-type runs to the private entrepreneurs. That could ultimately free the necessary capital--intellectual and financial--for the next great leap for humans into our solar system.