OK… First I’ll access the secret military spy satellite that is in geosynchronous orbit over the midwest. Then I’ll ID the limo by the vanity plate “MR. BIGGG” and get his approximate position. Then I’ll reposition the transmission dish on the remote truck to 17.32 degrees east, hit WESTAR 4 over the Atlantic, bounce the signal back into the aerosphere up to COMSAT 6, beam it back to SATCOM 2 transmitter number 137 and down on the dish on the back of Mr. Big’s limo… It’s almost too easy.
– Garth, in Wayne’s World
It’s hard to overstate the achievement that SpaceX made on Wednesday with the successful flight of its Dragon spacecraft. Launching the spacecraft into orbit, while hardly unprecedented, is no simple feat: national space agencies in places like Brazil and South Korea have failed to accomplish this. Maneuvering a spacecraft in orbit is also nothing new, but not anything to be taken for granted on a spacecraft’s first flight. Deorbiting that spacecraft, though, having it safely reenter the atmosphere, then splash down virtually right on target in such a manner that, had anyone been on board, they would have had a “nice ride”, in the words of Elon Musk, is an impressive accomplishment, especially on a first try and with virtually everything working as planned. Despite all the complexities, it looked “almost too easy”.
The launch is obviously a major milestone for SpaceX, clearing the way for future Dragon flights to service the ISS, as well as create momentum for its plans to develop crew transportation systems. It’s also a major accomplishment—or a source of relief—for NASA, which was putting so much emphasis on commercial providers for supporting the ISS. It will also likely buoy other commercial space providers, demonstrating that you don’t have to be a government agency to do things like launch and recover spacecraft. And it may, at least for the time being, quiet critics of commercial space and NASA’s new emphasis on it.
One thing that should be kept in mind during all these congratulations and celebrations: while it may look easy, it is not. It’s quite possible there will be future setbacks—launch delays, failures, other malfunctions—for SpaceX or other companies entering this field in the months and years to come. Celebrate yesterday’s achievement, but keep in mind it’s just one step of many more to come.