Tomorrow (May 19) will mark what is arguably one of the biggest events in space since July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  This month will be the first time in history that NASA is relying on a private company to deliver food to outer space. SpaceX will launch an unmanned craft tomorrow bringing supplies to the International Space Station and hopefully returning with millions of dollars in sensitive scientific equipment. If it is successful, it would mean 12 launches per year under a $1.6 billion dollar contract. Essentially, it means that NASA is relinquishing mission control.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, which launches mostly satellites now, will take the lead in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. NASA wants private companies to man and supply the space station as it retools for missions into deeper space, like Mars and the Asteroid belt.

During a press conference in Houston in April, Elon Musk explained why his company, SpaceX, is trying to manage expectations for next week’s historic flight. “It is worth emphasizing that there is a lot that could go wrong. This is pretty tricky. The space station is zooming around the Earth at 17,000 mph, and we’ve got to launch and track and rendezvous with it. So, it’s hard. But I think we’ve got a pretty good chance.”

Although this will be only the second time that SpaceX’s Dragon craft has gone into orbit, NASA has to take that bet. Now that the space shuttle program is over and its replacement being developed by competing private companies is still a few years away, NASA is out of the human spaceflight game for quite a while.  Even if everything goes right for the cargo-only Dragon spacecraft and SpaceX’s new Falcon rockets, NASA will be depending on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport people for the near future. At $63 million dollars per astronaut, NASA really needs private industry to step up pretty soon.

Russia and China are currently the only countries with manned spaceflight capability. India, Japan, and even Iran have space programs in development right now. The space shuttle program is over and political in-decision has led NASA to lose ground in the manned spaceflight arena, but US companies have been hard at work to create a space cottage industry in the private sector. SpaceX is competing against space industry titan Boeing; little known but highly successful Sierra Nevada; and Jeff Bezos backed Blue Origin for the right to carry future NASA astronauts to the ISS.  And more private money is going into companies like XCOR, Armadillo Aerospace and Virgin Galactic who all aim to offer private citizens a short ride to 100km on a suborbital spaceflight. 

The show certainly won’t be over if SpaceX fails to reach the ISS, but the road for government and private access to space will be a lot easier if they succeed.