Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

On Thursday, a space capsule known as the Dragon touched down in the Pacific Ocean.

After launching into orbit May 22, the capsule had performed a series of complicated maneuvers, docked with the International Space Station, dropped off more than 1,000 pounds of supplies and returned home bearing a load of science experiments.

It was the first commercial spacecraft to complete such a feat. And the company that developed it, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, was rewarded with a U.S. government contract of $1.6 billion to fly 12 more supply missions.

Optimists saw a nimble private company leveraging public investment, reducing future taxpayer burdens and heralding a new age of commercial space flight.

Skeptics saw a heavily subsidized contractor delivering expensive equipment to an aging government-run colossus, spinning endlessly in unproductive orbit.

Both have a point. SpaceX’s achievement is impressive, and private enterprise seems likely to bring much-needed efficiency to the government’s space program. The problem is that, even if this new partnership delivers all its promised benefits, U.S. space policy will still have no clear objective.

Good Deal

Despite numerous setbacks, SpaceX looks like a relatively good deal for taxpayers. Elon Musk, the company’s billionaire founder, says its missions will cost one-eighth what space shuttle flights did, and a study last year by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration found that SpaceX spent far less than what NASA would have to develop the rocket that launched the Dragon capsule. Ambitiously, the company aims to carry humans into space by 2015.

All of which sounds great. Except that SpaceX’s contract is simply to continue supplying the space station -- a delightful symbol of international collaboration that has so far cost $100 billion and produced almost nothing of scientific value. Until a national consensus emerges about what we want to accomplish in space, this expensive cycle looks likely to continue.

In other words, we’ll be spinning our wheels, albeit with Musk-like efficiency, unless NASA asserts sharper objectives for the post-shuttle world and makes clear how it will encourage -- and make use of -- its growing symbiosis with the private-sector space industry.

In the best case, SpaceX and its competitors, including Orbital Sciences Corp., will safely supply the space station at lower cost until it shuts down, probably in 2020. Once they demonstrate their efficiency and reliability, NASA can cede more of its prosaic tasks to the private sector.

This should free the space agency to concentrate on carrying out advanced missions. The most important will be manned space flight, the part of NASA’s portfolio that has always been especially popular and inspiring, and which has reliably attracted money from Congress.

If we’re to get beyond near-Earth orbit, NASA needs to articulate the ultimate goal of these expensive expeditions. A government advisory group known as the Augustine Committee offered a smart way to think about this in a 2009 report. It suggested a “flexible path” for future missions, in which humans and robots would work in tandem to explore a logical progression of destinations -- such as the moon and asteroids -- in the inner solar system.

Mars, Beyond

As successive goals are reached, and our ability to operate in deep space improves at each step, human trips to Mars and beyond will become increasingly viable. Working with international partners should be a priority in such an approach, and it will be up to the U.S. government to once again show leadership as humanity pushes farther into the solar system -- hopefully with some help from companies like SpaceX.

We’re under no illusions that spending on space is tough when there are so many problems on Earth. But remember: All that money is being spent terrestrially, and in specific congressional districts. By conservative estimates, a dollar spent on the space program yields about $2 in direct and indirect economic benefits. That spending has sustained a civil workforce with technical expertise, led to advances in everything from communications to medicine, and inspired a generation of young people to enter science and engineering.

Harnessing the power of private enterprise will only enhance these benefits. SpaceX says that with commercial sales and its government missions, it already has $4 billion in revenue under contract. Musk told Bloomberg News in February that there’s a good chance the company will go public next year. One day, SpaceX could reduce the costs of space flight enough to make money ferrying rich people to the cosmos.

We wish them and their competitors the best. But we hope that the U.S. presence in space can still stand for something more profound and enduring than tourism.

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