ON THE 34TH day of the recent government shutdown at 4 p.m., a huge cloud billowed out from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. It had been produced by a successful static test fire of the Falcon 9, which will ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station sometime in the next few months. It will be the first such flight since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, essentially marking an American return to manned spaceflight. On the day of the test fire, about 95 percent of NASA's workforce was on furlough, having been deemed nonessential to government functioning. How did NASA manage such a milestone with a skeleton crew?
It didn't. The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule that sits atop it were built by SpaceX, a privately held company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk. The vehicle's tests and flights are being conducted on contract with NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program, which represents a tiny fraction of the overall cost of the U.S. space effort. The program is a classic study in the power and pitfalls of privatization, and it may be our best chance to get off this godforsaken rock. Before it can stage a manned flight, SpaceX must execute one final dress rehearsal, duplicating the planned mission but without actual human beings in the capsule. It looked, for a while, like the government might still be shut down when that time came. SpaceX and NASA both indicated that the launch would nonetheless happen on schedule.
The federal government wound up reopening the day after the test fire, well before the planned launch. But it could certainly be shuttered again, given that the underlying political battle is far from resolved. And legislation emerging from this shutdown will make future shutdowns less politically painful by guaranteeing back pay to government workers. What's more, since the goal of the commercial launch industry is to greatly increase launch frequency, there's a good chance the government will at some point be shut down at a crucial moment in space travel.
The Commercial Crew Program was deemed essential this time and therefore escaped the wrath of politics. But that won't always be the case. And in this instance, key elements of other relevant agencies--notably the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)--were up and functioning, thanks to some lucky budgetary timing that might not always align so neatly. This is the danger of intermingling private and public...