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The Dragon rises April 30
April 19, 2012 - Stephen Browne
On April 30 something history-making is scheduled to happen, which will probably go unnoticed by almost everybody.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, will launch it's unmanned Dragon capsule in an attempt to rendezvous with the International Space Station and offload supplies.
If they succeed this will be the first time a private company completes a mission to the space station, at precisely the time the U.S. government seems to be winding down the federally funded space program. The mission is meant to be a demonstration of the company's ability to fulfill a $1.6 billion contract to stage 12 supply missions.
It's not the first private launch into orbit, but it's the first one performing practical work.
Since the retirement of the space shuttle, U.S. astronauts have had to hitch rides with the Russians to get to the orbiting base. At least now the U.S. will have a vital role in keeping the project going - and leading the privatization of space exploration.
NASA led mankind into space, but as government agencies go it's fairly old now, and suffering from all the usual pathologies of long-entrenched bureaucracies.
Earth orbit is actually profitable these days. There are over 3,000 satellites in orbit providing services ranging from weather prediction to communications relays that have become vital to civilization. Private companies have plenty of incentive to enter space exploration, and the motivation to find ways of making it cheaper to get into orbit.
This will free NASA to pursue two vitally important roles for the space program, and indeed the future of humanity:
1) The exploration of deep space and the planets which will greatly advance scientific knowledge, but which may not have tangible returns for a while yet.
2) Development of systems for deflecting or capturing and bringing earth-grazing asteroids into orbit. Thus a) saving the planet from a catastrophic strike, and b) making a huge source of raw materials such as nickle and iron available.
For those of us who grew up on science fiction, the progress of space exploration has been disappointingly slow. Maybe reality is starting to catch up to our dreams at last.
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