posted by Ben Horst
Tuesday this week - March 20, 2007 - was an historic day for spaceflight, though few people around the world noticed.
One of the leading private companies in the new age of space access, SpaceX, tested its completely-reusable rocket launch system, reaching an altitude of about 200 miles (only 50 miles lower than the International Space Station).
Elon Musk, cofounder of PayPal, launched SpaceX in 2002. Regarding the recent test flight, he writes
"The second test launch of Falcon 1 took place today at 6:10 pm California time. The launch was not perfect, but certainly pretty good. Given that the primary objectives were demonstrating responsive launch and gathering test data in advance of our first operational satellite launch later this year, the outcome was great. Operationally responsive (ie fast) launch has become an increasingly important national security objective, so demonstrating rapid loading of propellents and launch in less than an hour, as well as a rapid recycle following the first engine ignition are major accomplishments."
Satellite launches for US government and international customers are scheduled for the 2008/2009 timeframe, and SpaceX has also landed a contract to supply the ISS for NASA. A 7-person space access vehicle called Dragon is currently being developed for this purpose. Dragon will be able to support private space tourism, too, and SpaceX has been working with Bigelow Aerospace to ferry customers to its planned orbital hotels a few more years down the road.
It may sound farfetched now, but the pieces are falling into place one-by-one. The winning of the Ansari X-Prize a few years ago by SpaceShipOne (built by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites) was just a first step in this new contest. And in a few more decades, even these rockets might seem old fashioned, once someone completes the first space elevator! Before we are truly old, the space age will have finally begun.