The history of the U. S. A. in space changed in a fundamental way when the commercial firm SpaceX delivered its first payload of cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX's capsule Dragon successfully docked with the station and delivered much-needed supplies and equipment, a task formerly performed by the now-defunct Space Shuttle. This culminates plans that go back officially to at least 2006, when NASA signed a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Agreement with the firm. CEO and primary financial backer Elon Musk said the achievement was "just awesome."
NASA has come in for a lot of criticism in these pages, but signing the agreement with SpaceX was a smart thing to do, especially now that events have vindicated the decision. Of course, the larger hurdle of manned space flight remains in the future for SpaceX, and that job is an order of magnitude harder than hauling stuff, which is both disposable without moral qualms (other than the loss of money and time) and a whole lot easier to take care of in flight. Humans in orbit require many times their weight of life-support and safety systems, which is one reason why the International Space Station is so much bigger than the Dragon capsule. But let's give SpaceX its due and congratulate it on actually making money with a delivery to a manned space outpost.
Not that the firm is likely to be profitable yet in an overall sense. Musk, a 40-year-old native of South Africa and founder of what became PayPal, is wealthy enough to afford to lose money for a while. And it remains to be seen whether SpaceX will ever lead to a corporate space sector that profits from anything other than a few large contracts from governments. In this sense, SpaceX is not that much different from the aerospace contractors that have been involved in NASA operations from the very beginning.
But Musk and SpaceX are now in the driver's seat, not NASA. The Dragon was designed as well as built by SpaceX, and NASA is simply playing the role of a guy who wants some stuff moved, only instead of hiring a moving company to truck it across town, SpaceX made a delivery in orbit.
The hope is that firms like SpaceX will focus their organization and efforts on clear goals such as what Dragon just did, rather than running in all directions at once as we have so often seen NASA do in recent years. Goal-directed behavior is not a guarantee of ethical behavior, or even success. After all, the Nazis were very goal-directed, but their goals were evil ones. But having a clear and measurable goal allows managers to answer the question "Do we need to do this?" easily and simply, and makes for good operational efficiency, a characteristic that NASA has been somewhat deficient in for the last few years.
Where does SpaceX go from here? As I mentioned, there are plans for manned space flight. Rocketry is a notoriously dicey field of engineering because full-up tests of entire systems are so hideously expensive. If you build a radio, you can set it on your workbench and turn it on, and all it costs for the test is a few cents of electricity. But to test a single-use rocket in a realistic way, you have to fire the thing and watch it go wherever it was designed to go -- once. If it works, you have to make sure you build the next one exactly precisely like the first, or else you can't be sure it will work as well as the one you tested. This means that rocket design is not a business for the faint-hearted or under-funded soul.
Elon Musk is neither of these, and so we can look forward to SpaceX's next trick. Every so often, I come across a student who has caught the space bug: he or she wants to design rockets or even try out to be an astronaut. Until recently, I listened to such people with decidedly mixed emotions, because the only business in town, practically speaking, was either NASA or a contractor tied hand and foot to NASA. And the way NASA has been operating for the last decade or two, I was reluctant even to encourage such people.
But now that SpaceX is a viable organization and has proved itself in a big way, I would have no hesitation in recommending a career in commercial space exploration and related enterprises. It's interesting that when NASA scored its greatest triumph, the July 1969 moon landing, Musk wasn't even born yet. So clearly the generational torch is being passed, and that is a good thing. The NASA way of doing things was good when NASA was fairly young, but Musk's SpaceX is a new start. And Musk seems to be the kind of entrepreneur who benignly imposes his personality on his organization. Such people can be hard to work for up close (witness the famed harsh perfectionism of the late Steve Jobs of Apple), but if the CEO's overall intentions are right, the organization can achieve a coherence and direction that makes it an attractive place to work.
Besides space, Musk has other interests, all of which he says he has chosen as ways of bettering humanity, which is what engineering should be all about. His Tesla Motors has the eventual goal of making electric cars for the masses, although so far its only product is an expensive roadster. And he has operated a charitable foundation for some years on the side.
It will be interesting to see whether Musk can develop to the extent of handing off SpaceX to other good managers as time goes on, rather than clinging to it after his usefulness to it has peaked. He is presently chief technical officer as well as CEO, and that dual role doesn't seem likely to be sustainable for any length of time. Let's hope that other entrepreneurs get into the space business to provide some healthy competition for SpaceX, and then we can say that we have truly made the transition from government-owned and operated space exploration to a full-up commercial model -- that works.
Sources: Besides the current news coverage of SpaceX's achievement reported by Associated Press, I consulted a news release by SpaceX at http://www.spacex.com/press.php?page=20120525 and the Wikipedia article on Elon Musk.
Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.
This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.