The age of truly private access to space arrived Wednesday as SpaceX's Dragon capsule was launched from Cape Canaveral, orbited twice and splashed down on target in the Pacific west of Mexico. After many delays, the California company's Falcon booster appeared to perform flawlessly in a many-billion-dollars gambit that is predicted to lead to the routine commercialization of space launches. "It's just mind-blowingly awesome. I apologize, and I wish I was more articulate, but it's hard to be articulate when your mind's blown - but in a very good way," said an apparently pleased SpaceX CEO Elon Musk after the capsule, which eventually may carry up to 20,000 pounds of astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, settled comfortably into the Pacific under three parachutes.
The money involved is considerable but in this case much of the risk is borne by Musk and others with similar dreams. NASA is funding commercial space initiatives based on achievement and by the time the candle was lit on Wednesday, SpaceX had achieved 17 of them, entitling it to $253 million in funding. Musk says they'd spent more than $600 million to that point. It's not clear what getting 158 miles high, circling the Earth twice and splashing down less than a half mile from the target will get them. It's worth noting that while nuclear-powered aircraft carriers have been dispatched to recover space capsules in the past, an inflatable boat with an outboard motor accomplished the task this time.