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Beyond the Beltway: America's Next Sputnik Moment

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In Hawthorne, California, birthplace of the Beach Boys and just minutes south of Los Angeles International Airport, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is making the futuristic “final frontier” envisioned in movies like “Star Trek” a near-term reality. Never heard of SpaceX? It’s the private sector’s version of NASA, which means it works with the best talent, ahead of schedule, under budget, and with a viable business model.

Early Tuesday morning, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX blasted its Falcon9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft into orbit, with the goal of transporting equipment and supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX aims to be the FedEx of space initially, and to later become the Delta Airlines of space, without the bankruptcy filings or union obligations.

Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk and funded initially with Musk’s own money, SpaceX also aims to do what NASA could not: remain technologically and financially viable in the long term. Thus far, SpaceX has succeeded: it designed and launched the first privately developed rocket to reach orbit; and it was awarded a NASA contract worth $1.6 billion to ferry space cargo in the years to come.

As SpaceX heads for the moon, its success provides America a (rocket) boost in scientific, technological, and economic advancement. Back on earth, President Obama has proclaimed solar shingles and green technology as America’s next Sputnik moment, but when it comes to green energy, “Houston, we have a problem.” In contrast, Musk and SpaceX are driving a Sputnik moment full of promise. Hawthorne: we have liftoff.

The story of SpaceX and its success is uniquely American. Musk was born in South Africa, educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford (briefly: he dropped out), and by his twenty-ninth birthday, he was a millionaire hundreds of times over after Compaq purchased his first company, Zip2, for over $340 million in cash and stock options.

Flush with cash, Musk, ever the inventor, created, an online e-mail payment company, which eventually became PayPal. After eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002, Musk created SpaceX to develop the rockets that will make future (government and private) space travel possible. As witnessed Tuesday, the rockets and SpaceX are firing on all cylinders.

As a result, Musk and SpaceX are boldly going where no NASA bureaucrat has gone before: they are making successful space flight profitable. And they are doing it at a time when the United States is by many accounts ceding its dominance of space to other nations, namely China.

But NASA’s decline is Musk’s opportunity, and a teachable moment. Upon viewing the Monday night launch of Falcon9, one European tourist said, “It's a spectacular sight. You don't see it every day, especially not when you're from Europe, there are no launches there.” He was not technically correct. On March 23 and May 16, 2012, the European Space Agency launched rockets carrying food and supplies to the International Space Station. Yet these were launched from French Guiana, not Paris, and their launch occasioned little attention and inspired little awe. Thus, one man, Musk, is doing more to advance the space race than an entire continent of nations.

This reality speaks to Europe’s continued decline, America’s abiding creative genius, and the limits on government initiative. SpaceX is doing much quicker and cheaper what NASA, after decades, could not do: design a cost-effective means for space travel and transport. Likewise, SpaceX is doing what Europe as a continent, and what no individual European nation, can do: inspire the next generation, advance space exploration, and compete with the Chinese for space domination. And SpaceX demonstrates how the private sector can (literally) take off where government falters.

In a prepared statement, Musk said, “It is like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavor. That move dramatically accelerated the pace of advancement and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we’re at a similar inflection point for space. I hope and I believe that this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advancement in space transportation technology.”

Musk may be proved correct in the near future. But in the meantime, his company’s success should serve as a reminder that the true greatness of America lies in its initiative, risk-taking, and daring to go where few have gone. The future of private space flight remains uncertain, but SpaceX has already provided a giant step to inspire and model America’s continued leadership in the space race. At a time of prolonged recession and economic gloom, that is something to celebrate.

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