Space X’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) Demo Flight 2 is scheduled for Saturday. If the demonstration completes all the objectives set forth by NASA, the Falcon-9/Dragon system will be certified for regular cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. In other words, the United States will finally have a private sector replacement for the Space Shuttle‘s cargo delivery function.
While we’re all hopeful for success in this new phase in space exploration, I wonder why we couldn’t have had a proven system in place earlier, before the retirement of the Shuttle. Why are we still dependent on Russia to get our personnel to and from the station? It feels like we’ve set ourselves back, as if it’s 1959 again and we’re once again behind the Russians. I hope we can close the gap again quickly.
I think that NASA has done an excellent job in its own right over the years, and has been hampered by chronic underfunding, but don’t mind the move to privatization, either. As a space dreamer, I’m ready to embrace whatever works. The only problem is that, if privatization is successful, does that mean further cuts to NASA’s budget? Does it mean that our efforts in space will eventually be confined to missions that can turn a profit? While space was dominated by government agencies around the world, there was no question of requiring a profit motive, but in the hands of private industry, how long will it be until that changes?
Then there’s the simple question of ability. Saturday’s demonstration flight has been delayed for almost a year and a half. There was originally supposed to be three separate flights to prove the system’s readiness, but SpaceX successful requested the chance to combine flights two and three into this flight. That certainly saves on costs, but cuts down on the opportunity for verification. Since SpaceX is our best chance, though, I suppose NASA doesn’t really have a choice.
I can’t help but be worried. All my childhood dreams were borne into space aboard the Space Shuttle. So, I’ll be watching closely and crossing my fingers on Saturday. And if it works, I’ll still be crossing my fingers – hoping that Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX is every bit the dreamer he professes to be, and that he remains at the helm for a very long time. Otherwise, the next few decades may see a giant leap backward for America’s future in space.