Selling space: On SpaceX's mission to space

SpaceX’s mission carrying humans to space marks a new age in commercial space flight

June 09, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

For the United States to send American astronauts to space from American soil after a gap of nine years is a milestone in itself. That this took place at the time of one of the biggest civil rights upsurges since the 1960s makes it almost like an escape to fantasy, riding on the wings of a public-private partnership between NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The less expensive journey is a clear financial advantage as the U.S. has been paying the Russians $80 million to put one astronaut into space ever since they stopped NASA’s human space launch programme. Thus, SpaceX comes in to provide advantages in costs , innovation and safety. In the 2000s, when Mr. Musk showed off his rockets and lobbied in Washington DC, he was mostly ignored, yet now, NASA wants him to find customers for space flights. This can expand the power of U.S. commerce exponentially. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already signed up as a potential traveller to the moon and back. With this partnership, Americans have taken yet another leap of faith in creating commerce in space. If his plans get realised, Mr. Musk could make space flights as common as domestic flights. Technologically, it is a remarkable feat. The collaboration brings in a ‘willingness to fail’ which has kept SpaceX alive. This is coupled to the propensity to ‘qualify every component’, which has been NASA’s strength.

NASA has partially outsourced its work of innovating , testing and building new technology to market players such as SpaceX. It has made clear its desire to invite more such innovative space companies to participate. India under Prime Minister Modi has also opened up the space sector including ISRO facilities to private players. The emergence of successful partnerships here will likely depend on how well they stand up against the American example of allowing for failure. ‘Fly, test, fail, fix’ has been the rubric followed by SpaceX. India has not witnessed such huge experiments in space except by the state-led ISRO, its most recently celebrated one being the Mars Orbiter Mission at the cost of ₹7 per km, which is cheaper than autorickshaw travel as cited by Mr. Modi himself, famously. ISRO already has a competitive edge in the global market for space technology. The opening up of space technologies could harbour many an innovation of this kind; however, it calls for a high degree of accountability coupled with a non-partisan approach on the part of all players. The state’s role as a just arbiter in finding a delicate balance between entrepreneurial adventure and vested interests is a prerequisite to compete in space with the superpowers.

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