Click the arrow to watch the PBS Newshour report on SpaceX. Featured are Hari Sreenivasan and Miles O'Brien.
How big a deal is the SpaceX Dragon launch scheduled for Saturday May 19?
On the scale of American spaceflight, comparisons can be drawn to various historical firsts, but let's begin with some context.
Since the retirement of the Shuttle — announced in January 2004 and planned for after completion of the International Space Station — the United States has lacked a domestic option for delivering cargo and crew to the ISS.
Cargo delivery was not an immediate concern. The STS-135 Atlantis flight was added by the Obama administration to build up supplies until the commercial cargo vehicles were ready.
Other ISS partners have a cargo capability — Russia (Progress), Japan (HTV-2) and the European Space Agency (ATV). None of those vehicles, however, has the capability of returning a payload to Earth from the ISS. They all burn up on re-entry.
The Dragon capsule was initially designed with the eventual intent of being a crewed ship, so a safe soft landing was always planned.
This, then, is why the Dragon mission is "a big deal."
Once operational, the United States will have the only vehicle on Planet Earth capable of returning experiments and other payloads from space.
The Orbital Sciences Cygnus module, the other vehicle in NASA's commercial cargo program, will also burn up on re-entry. SpaceX, therefore, will have the monopoly on payload return from the ISS.
What if SpaceX fails?
SpaceX founder Elon Musk and NASA constantly remind us that this is a test flight. Officially designated COTS-2, this is a combination of what was originally planned to be two test flights. The first was to demonstrate that Dragon could maneuver in space, but it would not berth at the ISS. The second test flight was to attempt a berth with the station.
(The difference between docking and berthing? With docking, the vehicle would directly approach the ISS and attach itself to a port. With berthing, the Dragon will park alongside the station, then a Canadarm operator will grapple the ship and manually attach it to the docking port.)
Now both test flights have been combined into one, raising the stakes and the risk. That's one reason why this flight has been delayed for months.
The worst case scenario is that the Falcon 9 rocket blows up on the pad or after launch. If that happens, it could be comparable to the Vanguard TV-3 launch attempt on December 6, 1957.
Click the arrow to watch the failure of the Vanguard TV-3 launch.
Vanguard TV-3 was a test flight, but it was framed by the media as the American response to the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 launches. It was never intended to be that, but the media love drama and TV-3 fit the bill. It lost thrust two seconds after liftoff and fell back to the pad, exploding in a fireball. The failure was telecast live on national television, and was derided by critics as a "flopnik."
Popular history has forgotten that, once operational, Vanguard was extremely successful. The first two satellites launched by Vanguard are still in orbit and are projected to remain there until at least the year 2200.
Although Saturday's launch is a "test flight," those who want to protect the status quo eagerly await Dragon's failure. Many members of Congress have claimed that the private sector can't be trusted, even though the private sector has always built NASA's vehicles. All that's changed is the financial model — the commercial companies assume the risk and development costs up front, and only get the NASA contract if they prove they have a viable system. The real reason these members of Congress attack commercial space is that, with their positions on key committees, they can direct pork to established aerospace contractors that bring jobs to their districts.
In their minds, the status quo equates to re-election. They couldn't care less about new technology that reduces NASA's costs.
Others mistakenly see commercial space in a zero-sum game with deep space exploration. They think that if only the ISS and commercial space were cancelled, all that money could be transferred to a national mandate that would return more rocks from the Moon. Some Apollo-era astronauts fall into this category.
This assumption is simply a conceit. These astronauts, although national heroes, have no grasp on the political context that led to the Apollo program. All they know is that in the mid-1960s, NASA had nearly 5% of the federal budget. The reason was President John F. Kennedy had framed the "space race" in a context of national survival, a demonstration of prestige to show the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.
But that era no longer exists. It now rots in the dustbin of history. Many presidents since then have quoted Kennedy in proposing new space programs. But they seem to forget why Kennedy proposed a Moon program, and those reasons are no longer valid — which is why today NASA's budget is less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget. Cancel the ISS and commercial space, and the money simply goes to other porkery unrelated to space.
Click the arrow to watch an NBC News report on May 5, 1961 after the launch of Freedom 7.
Watch the above video of NBC News reporting the night of Alan Shepard's historic Freedom 7 flight. Are those life-and-death assumptions valid today? Of course not.
In some ways, I see similarities between Shepard's flight and the Dragon mission, but those are only superficial. Shepard's Redstone flight was a test of the Mercury technology on a suborbital trajectory. Orbital flight was already on the drawing board.
Had the launch failed, if — heaven forbid — Shepard's life had been lost, the damage to national prestige would have been incalculable, but I suspect the program would have continued. Kennedy would not have included the Moon mission in his "On Urgent National Needs" speech on May 25. Most likely, NASA and human spaceflight would have continued at a much slower and cautious pace. But we would never have gone to the Moon, because Kennedy wouldn't have mustered the political courage to propose it in the wake of a tragedy.
If COTS-2 fails, no lives will be lost, and NASA will have a redundant delivery option with Cygnus. But the world will still lack a means of returning experiments from the ISS. So SpaceX will try again, and one day there will be a COTS-3.
Does this compare to STS-1, the first Shuttle flight? That was certainly risky. The Shuttle was incapable of unmanned test flight. Astronauts had to be onboard. Dragon won't have a crew, just supplies and student experiments.
The biggest risk, in my opinion, is what a failure will mean to the future of commercial space.
Congressional porkery aside, commercial space once viable will give the United States a new and unique industry no other nation on Earth will have.
Click the arrow to watch the Astrogenetix video on salmonella and MRSA vaccine research.
We've just begun to investigate the implications for life and physical sciences research in microgravity. As demonstrated in the above Astrogenetix video, potential vaccines for salmonella and MRSA are being tested for approval, thanks to research aboard the ISS. By the end of the decade, we may have found clues that lead to fighting cancer, muscular dystrophy, and aging. Benefits to humanity aside, this also jump-starts an entirely new economy here in the United States that other nations will envy.
Bigelow Aerospace is ready to start deploying its private space station modules in low Earth orbit. But it must wait for commercial crew to deliver customers. Boeing is already a partner. Last week, SpaceX and Bigelow announced plans to jointly market flights. Seven nations have signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with Bigelow to use its modules.
Entrepreneurs are poised to invest hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in commercial exploitation of space. Planetary Resources recently announced plans to harvest asteroids for minerals rare on Earth.
And there are those such as Virgin Galactic that are marketing commercial tourist flights into space.
If COTS-2 fails, commercial space critics will lump all these together, although they really have nothing to do with another, and insist the only means to space is through a bloated government bureaucracy, funded by politicians who steer programs to their districts.
That's what's at stake on Saturday. Only the future of the American economy.