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What Does SpaceX's Commercial License for Spacecraft Reentry Mean for Space Travel?

Dragon Falcon

Score one for would-be space travelers: SpaceX, a space transport startup bankrolled by Tesla founder Elon Musk, just became the first commercial company to receive a license to re-enter a spacecraft from orbit into Earth's atmosphere, courtesy of the FAA.

The news comes just a month before SpaceX plans to send the unmanned Dragon spacecraft into orbit on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. It's purely a test launch—Dragon will zoom around the Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour before landing in the Pacific Ocean. And the FAA's license is only valid for one year, which probably isn't enough time for SpaceX to get a larger launch going.

But this will be the first time that a commercial company has attempted to send a spacecraft from low-earth orbit back into the atmosphere. Only the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency have done so previously. NASA's shuttle fleet will retire after three more flights, leaving an opening for private companies to shuttle cargo to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX already has a Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA for at least 12 cargo-carrying flights to and from the ISS. This probably won't be SpaceX's last contract with NASA, either. The space agency explains the future of its cooperation with the private sector on its website:

In the near term, NASA plans to be a reliable partner with U.S. industry, providing technical and financial assistance during the development phase. In the longer term, NASA plans to be a customer for these services, buying transportation services for U.S. and U.S.-designated astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). We hope that these activities will stimulate the development of a new industry that would be available to all potential purchasers, not just the U.S. government.

Of course, NASA should also be concerned about the possibility of private enterprise crowding the space travel playing field. While President Obama granted NASA $19 billion for next year (up from $18.3 billion in 2010), that funding could be slashed thanks to the midterm elections—some GOP leaders want to cut it down to $17.3 billion.

NASA won't disappear entirely. Obama recently signed a NASA authorization act that scraps plans to return to the moon by 2020 and instead authorizes the agency to send astronauts to asteroids by 2020, and Mars at least a decade after that. These are world-changing goals: a successful mission could be helpful in learning how to protect Earth from future asteroid strikes, for example, or kick-start a whole new asteroid mining industry.

In the future, the smaller things—shuttling cargo, sending rich tourists into space—will fall to companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, and any number of enterprising startups that see the growing gap between what NASA would like to do and what it has the funding to achieve.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.