It’s like Grand Central Station lately

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s been busy in space lately. First the Chinese succeed in their first orbital spacewalk, then businessman Elon Musk sends the Falcon 1 into orbit.

The Falcon 1 is the first privately developed and financed rocket to reach orbit. Three previous attempts failed.

Musk’s company, SpaceX, hopes to slash costs to low-earth orbit by a third, to approximately US$10 million. It also plans to develop heavier launch vehicles to ferry supplies to the International Space Station, and launch the company’s own astronauts into orbit.

Musk is the founder of PayPal, the Internet payment system. He sold it to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, founding SpaceX the same year. He’s also the chairman of Tesla, an electric-car manufacturer in San Jose, California. (The car is pretty cool: a fast, sleek sports car. Jay Leno took it on a test drive and was impressed.)

Here’s a picture of the Falcon 1 rocket nozzle from orbit.

Falcon 1 in orbit

The private exploitation of space has so far been all talk and no show. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to supply the ISS once the venerable Space Shuttle fleet is mothballed in 2010, so it will have income — a necessary part of a good business plan. If SpaceX can find other customers, it might just make money.

Making money off space exploration is something countries seldom worry about. If return on investment is part of a national space agency’s plan, that ROI is extremely longterm and includes such intangibles as national pride, technological spinoffs and (usually unspoken) military advantage.

If SpaceX can show the world space exploration is profitable, national space agencies had better watch out. If multinationals get involved, space is going to become a very busy place.

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