The reactions to today's successful maiden flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, a potential successor to the space shuttle, started streaming in long before the celebratory margaritas were poured. "My e-mail box has gone bonkers, and my phone has been ringing off the hook," SpaceX millionaire founder Elon Musk said. The eight-year-old company's fans were effusive in their praise, while others were in the "damn with faint praise" category. Here's a sampling of reactions from both sides, with an extra twist at the end:
• NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who once said he would do everything in his power to make sure SpaceX and other commercial launch companies were successful:
"Congratulations to Space X on today's launch of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Space X's accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station. Preparations are proceeding for the first NASA-sponsored test launch under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project later this year. COTS is a vital development and demonstration partnership to create a commercial space transportation system capable of providing cargo to the station. This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired."
• The Planetary Society, which has championed the "flexible path" space exploration strategy now favored by the White House:
"It's hard not to launch into hyperbole at the success of the first Falcon 9 test flight. It is a tremendous achievement. Hats off to our Planetary Society Board member, Elon Musk, and his SpaceX team. In advancing commercial spaceflight, today's flight of Falcon 9 could be the first small step towards relieving NASA launchers of the burden of low-Earth orbit, thus freeing the U.S. space agency to reach new worlds. ..."
• The Commercial Spaceflight Federation passed along praise from an assortment of space heavyweights, including former NASA astronauts Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9) and Byron Lichtenberg (STS-9, STS-45):
Schweickart: “As a former Apollo astronaut, I think it’s safe to say that SpaceX and the other commercial developers embody the 21st-century version of the Apollo frontier spirit. It’s enormously gratifying to see them succeed today.”
Lichtenberg: “I expect that there will be a lot more astronauts in the future because of today’s success. Lower cost launches means more flights, which means more astronauts. We’ve only had 500 astronauts in the history of the Space Age, but I hope to see thousands more in the decades to come.”
• Space consultant Charles Lurio, a tireless campaigner for the New Space movement and a tireless critic of the way NASA operates:
"Today’s flight should go a long way toward countering the hoary, 'magical negative thinking' of the past that led many to deride commercial spaceflight efforts. Of course, some will attempt to keep purveying those old myths, but their squawking should now be seen clearly than ever as the pitiful gasps of another era. The Falcon 9 flight, like that of SpaceShipOne, and like many others quietly being marked at pioneering venues around the country, shows that the path to practical spaceflight and commercial innovation driving a 'space PC revolution' is wide open."
• X Prize Chairman/CEO Peter Diamandis, who helped put together the $10 million Ansari X Prize to reward private-sector spaceflight and counts Musk as a member of his board of trustees:
"The maiden voyage of the Falcon 9 marks an important milestone in commercial spaceflight, proving what is achievable by privately-owned companies that are dedicated to pioneering new technologies and making space more accessible. Overcoming the high cost of launching to orbit continues to be a challenge faced by space-related ventures, and the emergence of launch vehicles such as the Falcon 9 contributes to an increasingly competitive environment in the launch vehicle market – a condition which has the potential to drive costs down and open the space frontier to the rest of us. In the not-too-distant future, we hope to see SpaceX and other commercial launch providers transporting crew and cargo to orbiting outposts, the moon, asteroids, and even Mars."
• The Space Frontier Foundation issued a news release that ended with this quote from one of its always-quotable founders, Rick Tumlinson:
“Some have decried the new American space program and harkened back to the good old elitist days of Apollo, and what they see as the end of the 'right stuff' mindset that took us to the moon. Well, they are dead wrong. You want to see excitement and drive of the early days of Apollo? You want to see the Right Stuff right now? Go visit SpaceX or any of the other NewSpace firms and teams out there reaching for the stars. It is alive and well!"
• Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has been pushing for an extension of the space shuttle program and the restoration of funding for NASA's internal rocket development project, was "very excited" about the Falcon 9 launch during a congratulatory phone call, Musk said. The Politico website quoted Nelson as saying SpaceX's successful test suggests that the Falcon will be in "full operation delivering cargo to the International Space Station a year from now." It's unusual for Nelson, who has seemed a bit doubtful about NASA's moves toward commercialization, to be so positive about SpaceX's prospects. Other members of Congress have voiced sharp concerns about what NASA's shift will mean for traditional aerospace jobs. They've also voiced sharp doubts about the capabilities of commercial launch companies (which, by the way, happen to include traditional aerospace companies). And that brings us to ...
• Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who once said commercial launch providers "cannot even carry the trash back from the space station," was quoted by Politico as saying that today's launch merely replicated what "NASA accomplished in 1964":
"Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation's human spaceflight program. As a nation, we cannot place our future spaceflight on one fledgling company's definition of success."
• Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a Florida Democrat whose district includes NASA's Kennedy Space Center, sounded ambivalent about one of the Space Coast's up-and-coming employers:
"The successful test launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is a significant step in the development of the commercial space industry. There is no doubt that commercial spaceflight will play an important role in the future of our efforts in space, and I believe private companies can bring new job opportunities for the Space Coast's highly skilled workforce. But we must both support the emerging commercial space industry and ensure a robust, NASA-led human spaceflight program in order to maintain our international leadership in space and keep our economy strong. I will continue fighting at every opportunity to minimize the human spaceflight gap, protect jobs, and ensure a bright future for the Space Coast."
• Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, set a new standard for faint praise:
"This first successful test flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs. While this test flight was important, the program to demonstrate commercial cargo and crew transport capabilities, which I support, was intended to enhance not replace NASA's own proven abilities to deliver critical cargo and humans to low Earth orbit. Make no mistake, even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well. This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously canceled as the president proposes."
Hutchison's faint praise was particularly irksome to Musk, who has about 100 of SpaceX's 1,000 employees working at a test facility in McGregor, Texas.
"We do all of our engine testing and development in Texas," he told reporters. "We're one of the fastest-growing employers in Texas. Why is she trying to hurt a Texas company? That's wrong. And the people of Texas ought to be aware of that. The people of Texas ought to be electing politicians that are going to be working to help their state, not hurt their state."
It sounds as if the Falcon 9 launch wasn't the only fireworks display going on around SpaceX today. What do you think? Should politicians be judged based on where they stand on spaceflight issues, or do other issues (such as the oil spill aftermath) loom larger on the political landscape? Feel free to leave your comments below.
Correction for 11:11 p.m. ET: Of course Sen. Shelby is from Alabama rather than Arkansas. Sorry about that. ... Thanks for calling the error to my attention. Chalk it up to a long day at the end of a long week.
For more about the political dimension of space, check out Jeff Foust's Space Politics weblog, as well as Clark Lindsey's Space Transport News, Keith Cowing's NASA Watch and Rand Simberg's Transterrestrial Musings. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."