The successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon capsule usher in a new era of spaceflight previously dominated by government actors and contractors. The Dragon capsule, which will perform several on-orbit maneuvers before rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station in the next few days, ushers in a new reality for space flight. That reality is that the days of government monopoly of space flight supported by defense contractors is over.
Since the days of Sputnik and the great space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, space flight has primarily been about international prestige and global geopolitics. This paradigm has most recently been used by the People’s Republic of China in promoting itself as a major player in the geopolitical landscape. However, the entrance of SpaceX and the reality of commercial space flight in general has presented a shift in how space flight is perceived. Space flight is no longer about geopolitical competition; it is now about free enterprise and the influence that commercial space will have on the future.
As the current demonstration mission of the COTS flight to the International Space Station plays out, history will be made with every orbit leading up to the rendezvous and docking. As the mission progresses it will not only validate the technology and methodologies of this commercially designed space craft, but it will also set the stage for the first manned commercial space craft. When this milestone is reached, the historical significance will rival that of the launch of the first man in space. Until then, the successful launch of the COTS mission sets a new precedent, one not seen since the launch of Sputnik.