Letters to the Editor

Space moves to private sector

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Wednesday n the Kansas City Star.

It was a nearly flawless initial flight: The rocket's engines fired, it lifted off from the pad, the stages separated and the payload went into orbit at the expected altitude.

Friday's maiden flight of the Falcon 9 rocket was an important step forward for President Obama's goal of using private contractors to deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station.

Falcon 9 was developed by the Space Explorations Technology Corp., or SpaceX. Before the launch, SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk was - like a politician - playing the expectations game. It would be incorrect, he said, "to have the fate of commercial launch depend on what happens in the next few days."

The lousy record of first launches is why he had cause to worry.

In 2006, an earlier version of the Falcon rocket flopped. Last year, South Korea's first orbital launch vehicle, the KSLV-1, also failed. In 2008, Iran's first orbital launch bid apparently failed, although the Iranians claimed they placed a payload in orbit.

So Friday's Falcon 9 demonstration flight, part of a $278 million federal contract, exceeded expectations. A second Falcon 9 is scheduled to fly later this summer carrying the Dragon capsule, which will be used for cargo and, eventually, people.

Technicians will test the capsule's capabilities in orbit, but it won't visit the space station. That won't happen, at the earliest, until next March.

If the demonstration flights go well, the result could be a $1.6 billion contract for a dozen space station cargo flights.

With the space shuttle scheduled to retire this year, it makes sense to rely more on private contractors for crew and cargo lift. Falcon 9's success has shown that the policy has real promise.