In 2009, Apollo 11's 40th anniversary, COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) moved from NASA acronym to reality. SpaceX corporation's Falcon 1 missile launch provided future historians with the moment of indicative drama. On July 13, 2009, the privately financed and privately built Falcon 1 missile placed the Malaysian RazakSAT Earth Observation satellite in orbit.
Other initiatives signal how varied -- and frenzied -- the next three decades will be from low-Earth orbit to the moon. "Space tourism" companies are booking jaunts to and from the ISS. A couple of years ago, another company, Orbital Sciences, tested its Cygnus Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM), which will deliver supplies to the ISS.
Though the entrepreneurial era of transcontinental railroads connecting U.S. and Canadian coasts does capture a sense of this moment's expansive possibilities, Space 4.0 defies historical analogy. Today's near-space entrepreneurs run markedly different kinds of companies and operations than the rail barons. If the relative "high stakes" are comparable (for the North American transcontinental railroads were participants in nation-building), the risks involved and accepted are more immediate and substantial.
The transition to 4.0 from 3.0 won't be smooth. Space 4.0 requires risk capital -- lots of it. NASA's future role is murky. NASA has been the coordinating brain and inspirational heart of America's space effort. As NASA's budget withers, having commercial services deliver cargo and personnel to and from orbit should free NASA to focus on deep-space projects -- the first steps to Space 5.0.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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