A Dragon flies into space

History was made last week when the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship docked with the International Space Station. The unmanned ship was the first commercial spaceship to reach the space station; the success of the mission — which is not complete until the Dragon returns home — could launch a new era in space travel.

The cargo capsule was built and operated by Space Exploration Technologies, usually referred to as SpaceX. The company was founded a decade ago by Mr. Elon Musk, a South African who made his fortune as one of the creators of PayPal, the online payments system. SpaceX has spent about $1 billion on the project over the last 10 years.

SpaceX got its first rocket into orbit in 2008 (after three failures), making it the first privately financed rocket to do so.

The next year, it lifted its first satellite.

A second-generation rocket was launched in June 2010.

The company scored another first six months later when it became the first privately financed rocket maker to orbit and recover a capsule.

Last week’s launch — which followed several aborted attempts — put the capsule carrying about 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of supplies into orbit to be seized by astronauts on the space station using a robotic crane.

Before the actual docking, the capsule made several passes along with several maneuvers to ensure that the capsule could be controlled both from the ground and by the astronauts in the space station. At the end of this month, the cargo capsule will be reloaded with about 1,300 pounds (590 kg) of equipment and returned to Earth.

This ability to return equipment to the Earth is invaluable: There has been no such capability since the United States retired its space shuttle program last year. SpaceX has a contract to make 12 trips to and from the space station. The next step — one that is anticipated in three to four years — will be using the Dragon to ferry personnel, not just equipment, into low-Earth orbit.

The mission’s success opens the door to a whole new world of commercial space flight. Until last week, space travel was the exclusive province of governments. No longer.

A second delivery vehicle being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. is expected to reach for the heavens later this year; Orbital has its own contract to deliver cargo for the U.S. government.

This week, a company called Sierra Nevada Corp. started full-scale aerodynamic tests of the Dream Chaser at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport using a large helicopter.

In some ways, the hoopla is misplaced. In the U.S. at least, private companies have always built launch vehicles, capsules and shuttles. But they did so under a contracting system that paid them a fixed percentage above cost. This time, the U.S. is using contractors in the same way it does for every other service or product. And in so doing, it opens the door to the use of those skills and products for private purposes.

In other words, the success of these efforts is a critical step forward in the privatization of space travel and making it available to anyone who can pay.

Of course, space tourism is an option for anyone with really deep pockets — if there is space on government launches. So far only seven people have made the trip, including one who paid approximately a cool $40 million for an eight-day stay at the space station. The new contracting system creates incentives for companies to reduce prices by orders of magnitude. It currently costs about $10,000 for every 500 grams to go into space; private companies hope to get that to $1,000, or even less — which will bring the price of space travel down.

Not surprisingly, a number of companies are rushing into the field. In addition to SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada, companies such as Boeing, Alliant Techsystems and Blue Origin (funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos) are developing their own launch vehicles and shuttles, each with support from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Ever his own man, Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur, has turned his back on the cargo business and has focused Virgin Galactica on the space tourism market. He has collected $45 million in deposits from 340 people.

There are already eight licensed spaceports in the U.S. that can be used by private companies. By one estimate, there are more companies trying to make money through space travel than there are major airlines in the U.S.

Handing over the “mundane details” of space travel to private companies is intended to free up limited U.S. funds for “bold ventures” such as travel to Mars.

At a time of growing austerity, NASA has to make increasingly pointed choices about priorities. The growth of a private space industry also keeps the U.S. from being forced to rely on other governments to get into space.

If space is indeed a common heritage of mankind, then the purely nationalist focus of most space programs is misplaced. The strategic utility of space — and the military uses of that domain — mean that governments will always look warily when they gaze at the stars.

Opening that world (or worlds, to be precise) to private citizens should blunt the urge to militarize the heavens and rejuvenate the dream of space travel for every citizen.