When the Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket crossed the pre-dawn coast at about 300 kilometres above south-east Queensland on Saturday morning it caused Australia’s biggest UFO sighting yet.
It was spectacularly visible from north of Brisbane to the far south coast of NSW, and skimmed above the north-eastern horizon in Canberra like a pinwheel of fuzzy light surrounding a bright gliding star.
But what the Dragon signifies reaches much further than the somewhat hysterical “we are not alone” reporting that afflicted some of the TV news coverage 12-13 hours later.
The payload is a full-scale mock up of the first private enterprise reusable orbital transport vehicle that the 38-year-old South African-born co-founder of PayPal, the Tesla electric car company, and founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, bankrolled with $US100 million of his own money from 2002.
It was unexpectedly visible because a leak from its attitude control nozzles or tanks had expanded into a halo of gas around the slowly rotating assembly of second stage booster rocket and dummy Dragon when it was half way around the world on its first orbit and high over the Gold Coast.
Musk was 12 when he wrote and sold for $500 the code for the early “primitive” Blaster computer game. His Dragon/Falcon 9 project has already won SpaceX a NASA contract to fly supply missions, and ultimately manned missions, to the International Space Station worth between $US1.6 billion-$3.1 billion following the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet at the end of this year.
He is also doing to the space establishment, the top-heavy public structures that run space for the US, European, Russian and China agencies, what Southwest and Ryanair have done to legacy airlines.
Musk is the low-cost rocket man of the moment, although it’s a crowded field full of new private space-age entrepreneurs, including Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic thrill ride enterprise.
He employs rocket scientists half as old or less than the aged soon-to be-pensioned workforce in NASA, and says he can cut the cost of payloads delivered to low earth orbits, such as that flown by the ISS, from about $US20,000 to $500 per kilogram in the foreseeable future.
Saturday’s first flight of the Falcon 9 lifter from a disused launch pad at Cape Canaveral was achieved by 900 scientists and technicians to a four-year timetable, a tiny faction of the head count, budget and time taken by NASA or other agencies for similar projects.
Musk says up to 80% of the present cost of space projects is spent on “bureaucracy”. This is the sort of thing the low-cost airline pioneers Lamar Muse and Herb Kelleher said about clumsy dead airlines like Braniff, Pan American and Eastern too as they took away their customers and found new ones through cheaper fares.
The Dragon mock up flew with a docking collar compatible with the air locks of the ISS.
When it launched, SpaceX broadcast its images and commentary from what sounded like a noisy demountable trailer, not some sanitised control centre with a voice intoning phony scripted mission statements.
And you could hear the sound of rocket scientist children playing in the background. The same children, who, by the time they are old and the 22nd century is young, will access space the way we access airliners.
They will go to industrial asteroids, to the moon, to zero G medical centres. They may live in times when the space lifts take form, taking them to transfer vehicles to wherever in the solar system they wish to go.
They. Not us. The Dragon, the children’s space ship, has flown.