Skip to main content

Private space travel: A new era begins?

By Meg Urry, Special to CNN
May 22, 2012 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at Cape Canaveral for a test flight in 2010. SpaceX is set to make a key launch on Saturday.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at Cape Canaveral for a test flight in 2010. SpaceX is set to make a key launch on Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meg Urry: SpaceX to launch first private freight-carrying mission to the space station
  • She says some lament decline of U.S space leadership, but in a sense it frees NASA
  • She says NASA can focus on space exploration; companies are in it for business
  • Urry: Companies also are doing pioneering work that will be helpful to humankind

Editor's note: Meg Urry is the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy and chairwoman of the department of physics at Yale University, where she is the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. This article was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

(CNN) -- On Saturday, a company called SpaceX was scheduled to launch the first private mission to the International Space Station, demonstrating a freight-carrying capability NASA gave up when it retired its fleet of space shuttles in July. (The flight was aborted at the last second after a faulty valve was discovered; SpaceX officials said the launch was postponed till Tuesday or Wednesday.)

Some NASA supporters are mourning what they see as the decline of U.S. leadership in space. But they should really be celebrating the dawn of a new era.

After all, we've been stuck in low Earth orbit for several decades now, at considerable cost. Visionary plans for genuine space exploration have gathered dust at NASA, the National Research Council and other space-savvy places. They advocate relearning how to land on the moon or figuring out how to travel to Mars, an asteroid or the special orbital location where the James Webb Space Telescope will eventually operate. But after more than two decades of talking that talk, the U.S. has yet to walk that walk.

Turning over routine space trucking to private industry has important benefits. It frees NASA to innovate and to develop a new heavy-lift capability commensurate with real space exploration. At the same time, it empowers private industry to play a significant role in the nation's space future.

Meg Urry
Meg Urry

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket, its Dragon capsule filled with food, supplies and science experiments, had been scheduled for 4:55 a.m. ET from the SpaceX launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. When it launches, three days later, astronauts will use a robotic arm to attach the Dragon capsule to the station. Cargo will be unloaded, return cargo loaded in, and the capsule will return to splash down in the Pacific.

Light Years: SpaceX Dragon to launch Saturday

It will be the third launch of the Falcon 9 rocket; the second launch of the Dragon capsule, the first with components needed for space station docking; and one of 12 planned SpaceX flights to the International Space Station.

SpaceX admits the riskiness of its endeavor. The current flight has already been delayed several times because of problems with the flight software. Space-flight veterans in the company are well aware of the trial-and-error nature of technology development, but they also know risk is an essential part of innovation.

NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program is funding a handful of private companies -- including SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation); Orbital Sciences Corporation, which built the Pegasus rocket launch system 20 years ago; Blue Origin; Boeing; and Sierra Nevada -- to carry cargo to the International Space Station.

ATK (Alliant Techsystems Inc.) plans to use its Liberty rocket to launch humans into orbit by 2015.

CNN Explains: Commercial space flight

Many of these private companies have goals far beyond servicing the space station. Taking over space trucking from NASA allows them to pay the bills as they develop increasingly capable space vehicle systems. Then, providing they can reduce space launch costs by a large factor, they may be able to exploit new business opportunities, including passenger traffic to outer space.

Still, they are not motivated by purely commercial concerns.

The financial backers of these companies -- Elon Musk of SpaceX or Blue Origin's (and Amazon's) Jeff Bezos -- have invested hundreds of millions of dollars of their own fortunes. They doubtless would like their space adventures to turn a profit, but at heart they are modern-day pioneers who want to do something profoundly important for the future of humankind.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion.

Take the example of Planetary Resources, a company that recently announced plans to investigate and eventually mine rare metals from asteroids.

The news stories emphasized PR's business plan, but their goals are far broader. They will first build small space telescopes to observe asteroids, so they can understand these building blocks from which Earth formed. Asteroids larger than about 100 meters (328 feet) in diameter are a potential hazard for the Earth, and understanding their composition will allow better prediction of their impact on the planet.

Should we ever need to deflect an asteroid, we'll need to travel to it. So, while Planetary Resources might have a plan to make money down the road, they will first contribute critical knowledge to humankind, perhaps helping save the planet from destruction.

Furthermore, with an asteroid visit and perhaps even a sample return, Planetary Resources will discover whether materials essential for human sustenance (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, water) can be recovered from these deep space objects. If so, they could set up interplanetary supply depots to enable human colonization of space. So there is a lot more to space commerce than mining asteroids for rare metals.

Private space companies describe a vision that sounds like the original NASA: big goals, with small but steady steps toward those goals, and much support but little interference from the nation.

People who have visited SpaceX say its employees are among the best and brightest and that they mean to change the world. This is just what NASA did in the 1960s when humans moved out of low Earth orbit and ventured to the moon.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Meg Urry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT