I am a SpaceX supporter. I have followed them for several years, have cheered their triumphs and been disappointed at their missteps. In short, I am a fan. But the rhetoric that I have heard around their recent accomplishments seems a little trumped up to me.
The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket/Dragon spacecraft combo and the subsequent docking with the International Space Station has made for a big news event, a positive one in a time when good news is scarce. The launch and docking have been hailed as “historic” on this site and others. No knock to anyone who is excited about this development, I’m excited too, but I think we need to keep what SpaceX has accomplished in perspective.
So far, they have successfully launched a rocket with a space capsule on top. Their approach to the design and engineering of the Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon capsule are innovative no doubt, but this is not unique in human history. The U.S. and other countries have been launching rockets into space since 1957. We have been putting people into space since 1961. Other private companies have been launching rockets into space for decades, often ferrying satellites under government and private contracts.
What is deemed historic about SpaceX’s achievement in docking with the International Space Station is that they are a private company rather than a government. They have risen to the technical challenges of lofting tons of equipment into space and linking up with an orbiting outpost there. This is a noteworthy accomplishment, but again, hardly historic in light of what has already been done in over 50 years of spaceflight.
The founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has stated that his goal for SpaceX is to help usher in an era where humanity is a “multi-planet species.” To land a person on Mars or an asteroid, or even to make significant strides in either or those directions would be truly historic. To bring down the costs of spaceflight to a point where it is truly routine, a goal that the Space Shuttle never reached, would be historic as well. I can imagine Falcon rockets blasting off every few days on missions beyond Low Earth Orbit, carrying people and equipment out into the solar system to make new discoveries and build colonies.
SpaceX is doing awesome work and their accomplishments are significant. But they have yet to truly make history. I look forward to the day when they do.