Has SpaceX launched us into the next era of spaceflight? After Sputnik and the Cold War space race, followed by the Shuttle era, the first successful launch of a privately developed rocket and capsule on a fee-paying mission is without doubt a major event.
We should be careful, though, about proclaiming a new era of commercial spaceflight. SpaceX is, of course, a privately owned business that plans to pay its way by providing launch services with hardware of its own design and construction. Founder Elon Musk has, like any entrepreneur, risked his own treasure and reputation on a hunch there would be a market for his idea. Moreover, it has been a long haul for SpaceX to get this far and provide a service which NASA has always carried out itself.
A cynic might note that the last time we entered a new era of spaceflight was 1981, when the Space Shuttle made its maiden flight. An age of economical and regular spaceflight beckoned, not to mention a shot of adrenalin for an American psyche still wounded by Vietnam, recession and the post-Apollo letdown.
So today, a rocket-and-capsule arrangement might be seen as a step back 50 years rather than a bold leap forward. A Mercury or Gemini comparison is, of course, unfair - although the plans for those capsules have actually been dusted off by another putative space entrepreneur. Let us not forget that the Space Shuttle, for all its 2001-Space-Odyssey promise, proved to be too expensive and too unreliable. NASA would no doubt like to have retained its capability to, say, bring satellites home for repair, but its shortcomings highlighted the value of a flexible basket of launch options, one of which is now SpaceX's Falcon 9-Dragon combination.
It is too soon to assume SpaceX has truly overcome the cost and reliability problems it has tried to tackle, but experience in most other industries suggests NASA has made the right move. Competitive supply by private enterprises is just about certain to provide a cheaper, faster, more reliable and more imaginative service than a government-run programme.
The reason we should be wary of proclaiming a new era, though, is that SpaceX's only customer is the government. Except to launch telecommunications satellites, there are very few commercial customers and government - at least in Washington - does not really have a space strategy. Take away the government business and there is not much left to sustain a new era of commercial spaceflight.
(This piece first appeared as the lead Comment article in 29 May Flight International)