Before dawn Tuesday, a slender rocket capable of boosting about half the payload of the now-retired NASA space shuttle lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Widely publicized as a pivotal commercial launch, the SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully inserted a cargo transfer vehicle, known as Dragon, into low earth orbit. Loaded with a little more than 450 kilograms (roughly 1,000 pounds) of supplies, Dragon is slated to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday.
The much-touted commercial nature of the SpaceX venture is indeed an inflection point in the attempt to reshape and kick-start American access to low earth orbit. But it is misleading to focus on the commercial aspect of the endeavor, despite its centrality. The cumulative bureaucratic costs of a government-funded space launch make it inherently commercial. The research and development, manufacturing and quality assurance capabilities of the commercial American industrial base and the investment of capital by the U.S. federal government were essential to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. In many ways, this partnership made those programs possible. SpaceX has received roughly a third of its funding from the U.S. government.
The widespread praise of Tuesday's successful launch, which does not equate to the success of the mission or its objective, must be tempered. Currently, NASA pays Russia more than $60 million per astronaut to get to the ISS aboard a modernized version of the Soyuz design, a legacy spacecraft that first attained orbit before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
To be clear: the United States currently relies on improvements in 1960s Soviet designs and technology to put a human being in orbit. The European Space Agency and Japan already field cargo transfer vehicles that have demonstrated compatibility with the ISS. While the complexity of being able to rendezvous with the ISS should not be understated, SpaceX and other commercial competitors hope their vehicles will ultimately be certified for manned spaceflight.
Meanwhile, Iran (in a technically incompatible comparison) is slated to launch Wednesday the low earth orbit equivalent of what should be an approximately 25-kilogram satellite, based on a past performance of Iran's Safir-series launch vehicle.
In other words, from a technical perspective, nothing SpaceX is attempting to do is unprecedented. The space launch vehicle derivative of the LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile that served as a core foundation of the mid-1960s Gemini program was itself capable of boosting a third of the Falcon 9's payload to orbit. And Iran is preparing to boost a satellite that could be twice the weight of Explorer 1, the first American satellite to orbit the earth.
This reflects two important realities. First, Tuesday's "success" is in fact a pivotal moment in an American campaign to recover lost ground in terms of space access. Democratic and Republican administrations in the White House, going back at least to President George H. W. Bush, have struggled to maintain the affordability of space access — and affordability was something the space shuttle promised but never delivered.
Even North Korea attempts to toss small things into orbit. It very nearly succeeded — and thereby stunned the world — in 1998. But it did so at an unknowable but exorbitant cost in terms of national resources. As did Iran, and the United States in terms of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.
SpaceX and the other competing commercial ventures underwritten by the U.S. government share an unattained but essential goal: establishing affordable access to space. The pursuit of this objective is imperative for any aspiring global power. The notable thing about Tuesday's launch is ultimately not its achievement but how far the premier global power that once put human beings on the moon has fallen behind.