A new space pioneer

For a while the International Space Station was an ice cream stand serving chocolate-vanilla swirl. The frozen treat came as a surprise, flown up aboard the unmanned Dragon spacecraft, built by the private Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif. The 10-year-old company was founded by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal.

According to a report, Space Station Commander Sunita Williams said, "Looks like we’ve tamed the Dragon. We’re happy she’s onboard with us. Thanks to everyone at SpaceX and NASA for bringing her to us ... and the ice cream."

A 71-second exposure as seen from Port Canaveral, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, bringing supplies destined for the ISS into orbit.

The Dragon was launched from NASA’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. According to MSNBC, the mission "is the first of 12 resupply flights SpaceX will fly for NASA under a $1.6 billion deal."

"This is the first operational private space flight," Rand Simberg said; the adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute is an expert on space technology and policy. "It’s a precursor to actually flying a crew into orbit with the same payload. Eventually, there will be commercial flights," within two or three years.

Simberg said the Russians fly private passengers into space for $50 million, but SpaceX soon will do it for $20 million. On the same day as the Dragon docking, soprano Sarah Brightman said she soon will be zooming into space with the Russians and might do a "space concert."

"This is the future of space exploration," Simberg said.

This, indeed, is the passing of the torch of space exploration. Much of the technology for the original space program was built by Boeing and such predecessors as McDonnell Douglas. Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first man on the moon, died Aug. 25. And on Sept. 21, the last space shuttle, Endeavour, landed in Los Angeles, bolted to a NASA 747, after a farewell flight over space landmarks. Although SpaceX launched the Dragon from NASA’s Cape Canaveral facility, Simberg said launching rockets soon will be privatized as well. "By getting NASA out of the business of getting into space, it can concentrate on going beyond orbit." Some of these projects include the Mars Scout program in 2013, to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and the James Webb telescope, named after NASA’s administrator during the Apollo program days, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Simberg said the private efforts by SpaceX and other companies will drive down prices, allowing such projects as the Bigelow Commercial Space Station, planned by Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas. According to the company’s website, "We anticipate construction of our first space station to begin with a Sundancer [habitat module] launched in early 2014, and that by 2015 the station will be available for client use."

Maybe they’ll serve ice cream for dessert.