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商业 - 航空和运输

私人航天进入新纪元

Ryan Bradley 2012年05月29日

上周,人类首架由私营公司制造的商业飞船成功发射,如果顺利完成各项预计太空任务,包括与宇宙空间站的对接,它将有望开启一轮全新的、以营利为目的的太空竞赛。

    上周二早上,天尚未破晓,一枚猎鹰9号火箭从卡纳维拉尔角冲天而起。它搭载着一艘名叫“龙”的宇宙飞船。起飞、船箭飞离和进入轨道都按部就班地进行着。对美国国家航天局(NASA)部署在卡纳维拉尔角空军基地的支持人员来说,这天早上并没有出现什么异常。不过让我们把视线拉远一点:此次发射的猎鹰9号火箭以及宇宙飞船“龙”都是一家美国私人公司的产品。这家名叫“太空探索技术公司”(SpaceX)的公司已经不是第一次穿越大气层了,不过这次的任务比以往更加重要,也更加雄心勃勃。这次发射其实主要是给NASA看的,如果“龙”能成功完成绕地飞行、操控性展示、导航系统展示以及与国际空间站对接、卸载非必需供给品等任务,然后成功返回地球(两周后“龙”将坠落在南加州外海数百英里处),那它将成为NASA最主要的近地轨道空地物流系统。也就是说,私人航天业将迎来真正的开始。

    太空探索技术公司的共同创始人伊隆•马斯科(同时也是特斯拉汽车公司的幕后老板)把“龙”的发射比作赢得了“超级碗”杯。这个比喻还是很恰当的,因为它标志着太空探索技术公司1800多名员工的努力终于获得了不朽的成功。然后马斯科更加生动地说道:“这就像90代年中期互联网诞生时一样。互联网一开始是一个政府项目,后来商业公司参与进来。这个进程大大加快了互联网的发展速度,并使它成了大众市场也能消费的东西。我认为现在我们也处在一个类似的拐点上……”从某种意义上看,这番话也是对的。NASA知道这一天迟早要来,因此全心全意地欢迎这一天。这次发射也代表了NASA朝着自己的“商业轨道运输服务计划”迈进了一大步。这个计划的目的是要用商用航天器取代由政府资助的近地轨道运输工具(如航天飞机),以便于NASA集中精力探索更深远的宇宙空间(如火星)。不过暂且别乐观的太早。互联网作为一个平台,早在它进入公共领域、成为众所周知的“万维网”并改变了我们的生活之前,它的基础架构就已经存在了——哪怕当时实践中不存在,它的理论也已经存在。

    但航天器却没那么简单。它是一部极为复杂的机器,涉及的知识浩如烟海。制造航天器的费用极高,需要的技能也极其专门化。火箭科学家也一直被人们看成“超级学究派”。市场会不会真的出现以航空飞行作为主营业务的创业公司?也就是那种在自家车库创业,结果却改变了货物的太空运输方式(乃至是我们自己的旅行方式)的公司?事实上,这种公司已经存在了。

    Tuesday morning, in the pre-dawn darkness off Cape Canaveral, a Falcon 9 rocket took to the sky, carrying with it a spacecraft called Dragon. The liftoff, capsule breakaway, and subsequent Earth orbit were in all ways routine. For the NASA support crew at Air Force Station Canaveral, nothing about the morning was extraordinary. But take a step back: That rocket, the Falcon, and capsule, the Dragon, were built by a private company called SpaceX. It's not the first time SpaceX has pierced the atmosphere, but this mission is more important, and ambitious, than all that came before it. It's an audition for NASA. If the Dragon capsule completes all its requisite tasks -- orbiting Earth, demonstrating its maneuverability and navigation systems, docking with the International Space Station (ISS), unloading its "nonessential" supplies, and returning to Earth (after two weeks it will splash down hundreds of miles off the Southern California coast) -- it will become NASA's primary low-orbit cargo system. Which means, yes, the true beginning of private industry in space.

    The day of the launch, Elon Musk, SpaceX's co-founder (and the man behind Tesla Motors), compared the event to winning the Superbowl, which is fair -- it's the culmination of a monumental effort by the Hawthorne, California company's 1,800 employees. Musk then said something far more telling: "It is like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavor. That move dramatically accelerated the pace of advancement and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we're at a similar inflection point...". Also true, in a sense. NASA knew this day would come and embraced it wholeheartedly. Indeed, the SpaceX launch also represents a giant leap for NASA's ownCommercial Orbital Transportation Services program, the aim of which is to replace government-funded low Earth orbit transport (eg. the shuttle) to focus on deeper space (eg. Mars). But hang on a second. The Internet is a platform, the infrastructure of which already existed in theory if not in practice before the network of networks moved into the public sector, became the World Wide Web, and changed everything.

    A spacecraft isn't so simple. It's a mind-numbingly complex machine. The overhead is extremely high, the skills ridiculously specialized -- a rocket scientist's cred as uber-nerd is as deservedly true today as it was before the digital age. Will there really be spaceflight startups? The kind that begin in a garage and end up revolutionizing how we transport goods -- and maybe even people -- beyond the atmosphere? Well, yes. In fact, there already are. 

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