A space capsule known as the Dragon touched down in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday.
After launching into orbit May 22, the capsule had performed a sequence of complicated exercises, docked with the International Space Station, dropped off more than 1,000 pounds of provisions and returned home bearing a load of science experiments.
It was the first profitable spacecraft to complete such an achievement. And the company that developed it, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, was satisfied with a U.S. government agreement of $1.6 billion to fly 12 more supply missions.
Optimists saw a quick private company leveraging public investment, reducing prospect taxpayer burdens and heralding a new age of profitable space flight.
SpaceX’s accomplishment is inspiring, and private venture seems likely to transport much-needed competence to the government’s space program. The problem is that, even if this new company delivers all its promised benefits, U.S. space policy will still have no clear objective. In spite of many setbacks, SpaceX looks like a comparatively good deal for taxpayers.
Elon Musk, the company’s billionaire founder, says its missions will charge one-eighth what space ferry flights did, and a study last year by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration set up that SpaceX spent far less than what NASA would have to expand the rocket that launched the Dragon capsule. Ambitiously, the company aims to take humans into space by 2015.