As Hillary Clinton launched her presidential election campaign last Sunday, crowds of scientists and technicians at Cape Canaveral were preparing a different kind of liftoff. SpaceX, a private space company, was getting ready to launch its Falcon 9 rocket with the spaceship Dragon on top. Dragon was carrying 4000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), which has been circulating 430 kilometers above the Earth for nearly 10 years.
The two launches do not appear to have anything in common and yet each may have quite a strong and very different impact on America’s near-term future. And while the first was dissected and discussed by analysts in exquisite detail, the second was virtually ignored.
Only a few hours into Clinton’s campaign, cable TV stations and social networks were full of reports on the U.S.’s first major female presidential candidate. Clinton headed out on the campaign trail and, without hesitation, the media broke the news that she stopped at Ohio branch of Chipotle – a chain of Mexican fast food restaurants – where she and her assistant waited their turn in line and ordered a chicken burrito bowl – with guacamole – a chicken salad, a blackberry Izzy soda and a regular soda. More thorough media reports added exclusive news later on, reporting that Hillary’s aide left a very small tip behind.
This was a brief overture to a craze that will no doubt dominate American social and political life for the next year and a half. The frenzy was enough to distract attention from the other piece of news, which deserved far more coverage in the mainstream media:
Three days after the successful launch of Falcon 9 on Tuesday, April 14 , SpaceX successfully docked Dragon to the ISS, delivering its payload. Unfortunately, the space company found it harder to deal with the return of Falcon 9 to Earth. It was the second time SpaceX had attempted to retrieve the launching stage of the Falcon 9 by landing it on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. With great precision, the pencil-like Falcon 9 almost made it. The rocket actually hit the target, but came down a bit too fast and at an imperfect angle. A few moments after it landed on the small platform, Falcon 9 tipped over and exploded.
And yet, that was progress compared to its first test of Falcon 9 in January this year and analysts are convinced that SpaceX is fast closing in on its goal of achieving a reusable launch system. That will enable private space industries to reach deeper into universe and to expand the frontiers of geopolitics. Providing a launch system that can rapidly recover and reuse a rocket will cut down on cost enormously.
“Collaboration between nations is interesting, but it has been the turn toward the private sector – especially for the United States – that has been key to technological developments that reduce launch costs,” observes Stratfor, noting that the United Launch Alliance (ULA), another private enterprise, plans its own recovery system. So cheaper launch costs will allow more launches, while making the technology more accessible to other companies and countries, argues Stratfor.
Watching the race of companies into space could well be more engaging than 18 months of watching political bickering among presidential candidates. Success could be more game changing than America electing its first female president.
Three years ago, when NASA abandoned the Space Shuttle program and the government reduced the budget for space exploration, the United States seemed to be grounded completely. Now, just a few years later, a dynamic private industry has grown up around a new space fervor. Undoubtedly, SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, with his ideas and money, are the central figures of this process. Mr. Musk now marches deep into the space with his Falcon 9 using innovations originating from his other endeavors, Tesla Motors (which produced the first all- electric car) and his eccentric transport system idea that he calls the Hyperloop.
And SpaceX is not the only company with projects for expanding human adventures in the space. NASA, SpaceX, and ESA among others, are working on the Orion spacecraft. All of this new development makes traveling to the ISS feel like an average sort of neighborhood activity. Much like the reports on Hillary Clinton visiting Chipotle.