Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule liftoff

Photo: SpaceX/Chris Thompson

The first space race was all about seeing what system of government could develop the most advanced technology as the U.S. and Russia shot the moon. Neil and Buzz walked on the moon in 1969, and that was the end of that. Well, not quite.

Fast forward 41 years to today. NASA has to retire its last spaceships. The Russians are now able to sell seats to NASA at a tidy profit. Yes, capitalism won the first space race, a lesson the Russians learned very well. In the new space race, we’ll see who can get us to space most efficiently: government or private enterprise.

Enter Space Exploration Technologies. This California startup has gone from an empty warehouse and a clean-slate design to building and testing its own rockets, sending satellites into orbit, and now, just today, blasting a capsule into orbit roomy enough for seven astronauts as well as recovering it safely—all for less than the cost of a single Space Shuttle mission. It’s a first for a commercial operation, the beginning of the next chapter in space exploration, and just the latest round of the commercial space race.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are not only cheaper than the government-owned ships they will replace, they are safer too, without the fragile heat shield tiles and failure-prone solid rocket boosters that doomed two Space Shuttles.The final frontier is finally, really and truly, open for business, and there’s no telling where companies like SpaceX can take us now.

For starters, expect more flights to orbit than was possible with the Shuttle, and within the next three years, with the same number of astronauts on board. The next few years will be devoted to servicing the International Space Station as SpaceX saves NASA from the humiliation of buying rides from its former arch rival, at less than half the cost. Also by 2014 will come commercial destinations as Bigelow Aerospace lofts the first commercial space stations, the first of which will render the International Space Station obsolete.

Finally will come the first manned missions beyond Earth orbit since Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt returned from the moon in 1972. Like today’s Falcon 9/Dragon launch, they’ll have government backing, but they will be driven by the visionaries and dreamers running private companies.

Congratulations to everyone at SpaceX, and thank you for making the future happen.