A new generation of space entrepreneurs

The SpaceX Dragon capsule docks with the International Space Station on May 25, 2012.

The flight of SpaceX’s Dragon came to a successful conclusion last week with the splashdown of the unmanned capsule west of Baja California. The spacecraft was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster on May 22 and three days later completed a successful rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). It was then grappled with the Space Station’s remote manipulator arm by astronaut Don Petitt and berthed with the Space Station. Its pioneering mission represented a first: Never before had a private company performed a resupply mission to the ISS. Dragon delivered 1,014 pounds of needed cargo to the ISS and returned 1,367 pounds back to Earth.

We have grown accustomed to the role of large companies, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in successful space launches. But with the nearly flawless debut of SpaceX, and with the arrival of other smaller companies on the scene, we are again seeing the benefits of competition, as new companies bring innovation, flexibility and, more importantly, reduced costs to space operations.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of companies competed for spaceflight contracts — Boeing, Convair, Douglas, Grumman, Lockheed, Martin, McDonnell and North American Aviation, to mention a few. The consolidations of the aerospace industry in the 1980s and 1990s left the government with fewer alternatives. And now, with two of the remaining giants — Lockheed Martin and Boeing — joining forces as United Launch Alliance, the alternatives are further reduced. This heightens the importance of SpaceX’s very successful mission. Yes, its mission made history. But its significance may be that, like their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s, young, bright entrepreneurs are forming companies to take on the challenges of aviation — although today, their sights are set on spaceflight. The heightened competition may, as in the past, provide the government and the taxpayers with more attractive spaceflight alternatives.

George Abbey, the institute’s Baker Botts Senior Fellow in Space Policy, is the former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.