The Falcon is not the Eagle. But the declaration that “The Falcon has landed” recalls an earlier feat, when this nation first placed a man on the moon.
Last week, the words streamed live from the Southern California headquarters of SpaceX, the corporation that launched the rocket. Though barely audible over the pandemonium, the words were historic. Across the country at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Falcon 9 had just made a flawless vertical landing.
It was, as one SpaceX commentator put it, “like launching a pencil over the Empire State Building, having it reverse, come back down and land in a shoebox on the ground in a windstorm.” In other words, it was technical feat for the ages.
The landing is a big deal for SpaceX and for the world. It signals the start of a new space race, one between ambitious corporations eager to make a buck exploring and conquering the final frontier. California, with its constellation of aerospace companies, such as SpaceX and Aerojet Rocketdyne in Rancho Cordova, could be among the biggest beneficiaries of it.
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Already, the global space economy has reached about $330 billion. It’s growing rapidly, according to the Space Foundation, and most of it – about 75 percent – is from commercial activity. Elon Musk’s SpaceX proved it’s possible to expand that market with reusable rockets.
Until now, most rockets have been designed as boosters that burn up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Every time time they do, about $60 million disintegrates. That has made space travel expensive and rare.
The Falcon 9 – like Jeff Bezos’s suborbital rocket Blue Origin in November – was launched, used on a mission and brought back to Earth to be refurbished, refueled and launched again. It opens the door to treating spaceships more like airplanes, reducing the cost of each mission from the millions of dollars to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With that barrier to entry removed, many more companies could launch rockets of their own and a market would develop. More satellites could be deployed. Space tourism could become a reality, and a manned mission to Mars would become feasible. Musk already is talking about establishing a city on the Red Planet.
Talk about a giant leap for mankind.
Earth has come a long way from the 1960s, when the government-led space race was a vehicle for showing off nationalism. NASA has an important role, which deserves continued and expanded support of Congress and taxpayers.
But the new race will depend on the cooperation of the private and public sectors. NASA has infrastructure, including the landing pads and control rooms. Companies have cash and the determination to succeed.
Sure, there might be a bit of good-natured ribbing, as happened between Bezos and Musk over Twitter after Falcon 9’s landing. But it’s all in the spirit of competition and represents the best of the American spirit.
Welcome to the future of space travel.