The mission by the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station executed by Spacex Inc., is remarkable. However, it is not a technical innovation. It is an innovation in government contracting. Technically, what Spacex did is little different than what the United States has been doing for almost half a century. They built a liquid fuelled ground launched expendable rocket that delivered cargo to the Space Station and returned a capsule. This is no mean feat, but it is not new at all.
What is new is that NASA contracted for a service (and they paid for the development of the capability to conduct that service). The innovation is that NASA is now paying a private company a fee to deliver stuff to the Space Station. Bear in mind, that even when the Space Shuttle was flying, NASA had little to do with building and maintaining the Shuttle. NASA hasn’t built a rocket in ages. They fund contractors to build rockets. NASA trains astronauts and NASA has maintained senior-level management control of the contractors. The great leap forward in the Spacex launch is that the bureaucracy has taken another step backwards from the process of putting stuff in space. That is a good thing and difficult to achieve–government rarely lets go of anything it controls.
The other thing that NASA did in funding this particular effort was limit the role of traditional aerospace contractors. Boeing or Lockheed certainly could have done the same thing as Spacex but in all probability would have charged more. It remains to be seen if Spacex will keep its prices low or will simply charge what the market will bear once they get operating on a regular basis.
So far, there is little advance in the method of getting to space. Spacex built a new liquid fuelled launch vehicle not particularly different from past American, Russian, French, Chinese or other rockets. Other companies are pursuing more innovative approaches and even Spacex hopes to develop a reusable capability downstream. That would represent a greater advance and hopefully drive down costs to make commercial activities more viable. We’ll see.
In the meantime, it is appropriate to celebrate the huge step taken by government in getting out of the way of space activity. The leadership at NASA over two administrations sustained this step despite massive Congressional interests in sustaining the large bureaucratic workforce and contractor structures. This was a small step for man but a huge step for the bureaucracy.