New spirit of innovation is transforming space industry

NASA's know-how to overcome technical challenges

2008: SpaceX launches the first ever private spacecraft, the Falcon 1, into orbit on its fourth attempt with a mass simulator as a payload.
2008: SpaceX launches the first ever private spacecraft, the Falcon 1, into orbit on its fourth attempt with a mass simulator as a payload. (SpaceX via Wikimedia Commons)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – After a planned launch of space station supplies next week, the first stage of a SpaceX rocket will perform a high-speed U-turn above the atmosphere, fire its engines and fly back to Cape Canaveral.

News 6 partner Florida Today reports the booster's landing attempt minutes after liftoff will be the latest in Space X CEO Elon Musk’s quest to develop reusable rockets, a breakthrough he sees as revolutionary for spaceflight and essential to one day colonizing Mars.

SpaceX has landed four Falcon 9 boosters in recent months — one on land and three at sea — and later this year hopes to re-launch its first used rocket.

“If we can figure out how to reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of 100 times and building a multi-planetary species will become feasible,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer. “I cannot think of another technology that will change the course of human history more than this.”

For nearly a half-century, images of massive Saturn V rockets blasting off from Kennedy Space Center, carrying men to the moon, have symbolized American leadership in innovation and technology. Then, it took a president’s bold vision, a huge budget and workforce and NASA’s know-how to overcome enormous technical challenges and win the Space Race.

Now SpaceX’s experimental rocket landings represent a new spirit of innovation transforming the industry and, gradually, the Space Coast.

Billionaires like Musk and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, startups with venture capital backing and even Silicon Valley giants like Google are applying their technology and vision to space ventures, pushing new approaches in an industry that was seen as moving too slowly.

Their ideas and investments are raising optimism about a more diverse and creative aerospace community around Cape Canaveral, five years after the end of NASA’s space shuttle program prompted roughly 8,000 layoffs.

“You’re going to see a stronger space program in the future than we had in the past,” said Bill Gattle, president of Space and Intelligence Systems at Melbourne-based Harris Corp. “It will be multi-faceted, where we’re not just dependent upon one thing like manned spaceflight through NASA.”

NASA is partly to thank for that shift.

While developing a Saturn V-class rocket and the Orion deep space capsule to send astronauts back around the moon and eventually to the Red Planet, the space agency has partnered with companies to ferry cargo and, within another year or two, astronauts to the International Space Station.

Those human exploration goals were set after President Obama cancelled a rocket program found to be years behind schedule, extended the life of the ISS — now flying through at least 2024 — and proposed launching crews commercially. The next president could review that direction again.

On Wednesday at Port Canaveral, Florida Today and the USA Today Network will host a special event, "One Nation: American: Innovation," presented by Harris Corp., the latest in a series of discussions around the country highlighting important issues ahead of the presidential election.