Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Let The Real Space Age Begin

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket stands ready for launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
John Raoux
The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket stands ready for launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

It was almost one year ago that the space shuttle Atlantis rose into the sky on a pillar of flame for the last time. The shuttle program ended forever with that mission. American astronauts were left to hitch rides on Russian space capsules, and American kids were left with no tangible direction forward for their dreams of a high-tech, space-happy future.

Tomorrow morning, the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral so that supplies can reach the space station.

What's the big deal? The Falcon 9 is a private spaceship. It was fully developed and is owned by the private company SpaceX, brainchild of Elon Musk, the Internet billionaire who made his fortune from PayPal. With contracts from NASA to develop new launch platforms, SpaceX and other companies are poised to make space the domain of profitable businesses. And Musk has been explicit about his intentions to go beyond Earth's orbit and build commercially viable ventures that might take people to Mars in a decade or two.

His timing couldn't be better or more urgent. Even with the shuttle program over, America needs to remain a leader in space.

When I was a kid, the U.S. space program fueled my imagination and led me into a life of science. But as I got older, it became clear that the real business of building a human presence across the solar system was going to have to fall to business.

Governments might get the exploration of space started, but the vagaries of election and budget cycles meant that it could never go further. Now, we've reached the point where it's the exploitation of space that matters.

While exploitation might seem a dirty word to some folks, they should stop to consider how dependent we've all already become on the commercialization of that region of space called Low Earth Orbit.

Think of the billions of dollars in commercial activity tied to weather prediction, global broadcasting and global positioning. All this business depends on satellites orbiting overhead right now.

But if, as a species, we want to go beyond the thin veil of space directly overhead, then the basic principles of private venture and risk will have to apply.

These are the ones that have always applied. While Queen Isabella may have given Columbus his ships to cross the Atlantic, it was private companies that built the seagoing trade routes and brought folks across to settle (for better or worse). Likewise, it's only through commercially viable endeavors that large numbers of humans are getting off this world and into the high frontier of space.

It is no small irony that many of the billionaires bankrolling the new space entrepreneurship built their fortunes not in jet-fighter aerospace manufacturing, but in the dream space of the Internet. Like so many of the post-Apollo generation (myself included), these former high-tech whiz kids had their visions of the future forged in rocket fire. In that way, the wide vista of their dreams is uniquely American.

While no one can doubt that problems enough exist here on Earth, the high frontier of space has always called to us as a nation. In stepping out across that threshold, who knows what new solutions we might imagine, what new expressions of our own creativity we might invoke.

But none of it will happen unless we ... get ... out ... there.

I am counting on that small step that SpaceX will take tomorrow to one day prove to be a giant leap for us all.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.