The explosion of a SpaceX rocket Thursday at Cape Canaveral marked the latest blow to America's space program. Given that NASA has farmed out much of its mission to private companies like SpaceX, the loss of the rocket is a setback both politically and commercially. And it calls into question the future of NASA and America's ambitions in space.
Investigators are still working to determine why the explosion occurred as the Falcon 9 rocket was undergoing a test in advance of its planned Saturday launch. The blast destroyed a satellite that Facebook had hoped would expand Internet connectivity across Africa and the Mideast. While SpaceX has successfully launched the Falcon 9 on dozens of occasions, the explosion is likely to set back SpaceX's busy launch timetable, including its planned launch of astronaut crews to the International Space Station by the end of next year.
The end of the space shuttle program marked a transition for the nation, as America used the private sector to hedge the costs and risks of traveling in space while policymakers gauged the public's appetite for aiming for new frontiers. The lull that has resulted has hampered the space program and American industry as it seeks to become more competitive in the evolving global economy. It will fall to the next president to shape a direction for NASA. But as SpaceX's launch calendar shows, there is a healthy appetite for space, a commercial need to press ahead and a desire among all involved for strong American leadership.