Elon Musk's new spacecraft, the Dragon, should revolutionize American space exploration.

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Jan. 20 2011 5:18 PM

Enter the Dragon

How the Dragon, a new privately funded spacecraft, should revolutionize American space exploration.

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Dragon spacecraft. Click image to expand.
The Dragon spacecraft in orbit

In 1957, the Soviets beat the Americans into space by launching the world's first orbiting satellite. For Americans, the so-called "Sputnik moment" was a wake-up call that pushed the United States to increase investment in technology and science education. Months later, the United States launched the Explorer 1 satellite, and the space race was on. Children were encouraged to study math and science, and American know-how helped the U.S. meet the challenge.

But the space program has slowed down dramatically since then and in early December, President Obama talked of the need for a new "Sputnik moment" to revitalize America's once-leading role in technology.

Ironically, that moment happened two days later, but with lamentably little media coverage. This Sputnik moment—actually a "Dragon moment"—delivered a somewhat different message. On Dec. 8, an American company, SpaceX, founded by an immigrant and financed mostly by private U.S. investors, successfully launched sthe Dragon spacecraft into orbit and then recovered it from a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

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The message is not just that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is necessary, but also that this achievement by a private company cost just a fraction of NASA's budget in money and time. Governments are great at funding and carrying out research, but competitive private companies motivated by profit and glory tend to be more efficient and speedier in applying the results.

One example: Right before the launch, SpaceX engineers found a few cracks in the second-stage engine nozzle extension. Rather than haul the spacecraft back to the shop for repairs, they simply analyzed the flaw, trimmed off the affected section, and proceeded with the launch. (To be sure, they might have acted differently had the Dragon been carrying humans.)

The lesson of the Dragon launch is not that NASA is clueless but that government research agencies should not run routine operations that could be better handled by businesses. (NASA in particular has been constrained by years of political infighting and patronage in the Congress, to the point where its mission seems to be employment maintenance rather space exploration.)

I must confess a personal interest in this question. I am writing this from Cape Canaveral, Fla. As a member of NASA's Advisory Council, I am currently visiting its Kennedy Space Center, which is badly in need of upgrading and repairs. Yet right now NASA is spending $475 million on a program that has already been canceled instead of on the space center. The reason: A congressman managed to introduce a provision that prohibits NASA from stopping the spending until a new budget has been approved. Because NASA is still operating under an old budget, the canceled program continues to be funded.

Imagine how those NASA workers must feel: grateful for the paychecks but completely cynical about the value of the work they are doing. Why not pay them the same amount to share their knowledge and skills in high schools? That would be a more useful response.

But back to the Dragon, which succeeded for a number of reasons. First and foremost, SpaceX is a private company. Someone's own money is at stake, so it is not wasted. Its founder, Elon Musk, an immigrant from South Africa (who in his spare time also runs Tesla, the electric-car company), funded it with his own money (which he earned at PayPal, another startup) and that of other private investors. (Yes, SpaceX does have contracts with NASA, but for a fixed price per launch.)

The emphasis at SpaceX is on getting the job done, rather than just doing the job. Whereas governments and government contractors generally enjoy job security, private companies know that the money may run out. Also, private companies compete. Behind SpaceX is a crowd of other private companies developing spacecraft, including Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, and XCOR Aerospace (a company I invest in).