More than one person here at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington has been speaking of a “tipping point” in the industry. That is, the point at which today’s emerging commercial space flight businesses will be able to sustain themselves without the intravenous injection of cash the government is giving them now.

Some in the industry say we’ve already reached that point, others say we have a ways to go. Who says what depends on their business model. As a rule, the older companies that have long depended on the government as their main customer see no need to rush toward changing that situation. The younger, hungrier companies are actively seeking new markets.

It’s interesting to see representatives from both groups speaking together on a panel, where you can easily compare their stated results in building the next generation of space ships.

For example, listen to SpaceX’s corporate counsel Tim Hughes describe his company’s spectacular successes in designing, building, and flying its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule, largely on private investment. Compare that to Boeing’s John Elbon description of his team’s much more modest progress in building a space capsule mockup and testing various subsystems with a modest amount of money from NASA.

The subtext is clear: old-guard Boeing won’t move forward on a new vehicle without direction and cash from the government; newcomer SpaceX is surging ahead under the guidance of its own vision of the future. One is a leader, the other a follower. If and when the tipping point is reached will depend more on what a company like SpaceX does than on a company like Boeing.

After you click the play button on the above pencast of the orbital transportation panel, wait for the audio to finish downloading. After it starts to play, click on my handwritten notes to jump to the referenced portion of the discussion.