Originally Published: May 31, 2012 10 p.m.
Public-private partnerships are the Rodney Dangerfields of enterprise. When they fail, they get no respect and, even when they succeed, the admiration is tempered because, well, it's a darn good thing that taxpayer money didn't go to waste.
A local example of a successful project that gets swept under the dusty scorn of minimalists was the City of Prescott's luring of Costco to its Walker Road location many years ago. The idea was widely derided at the time, so much so that even though the firm's advance money was repaid ahead of schedule and the business continues to collect oodles of sales tax money, folks complain every time any of our local governments float a similar plan.
On the flip side is the more recent failure of the solar energy company Solyndra, which defaulted on nearly a half-billion in guaranteed federal loans. Even supporters of the deal could find nothing good to say about that breakdown.
This week, though, a public-private partnership hit one out of the park, and then some, when SpaceX sent its Dragon vehicle to the International Space Station - and back - under a contract with NASA, becoming the first private company to complete a commercial space mission when it splashed down into the Pacific off the coast of Mexico on Thursday,
Since its beginnings, space flight has been under the control of governments. In the Cold War battle of space-faring superpowers, Neil Armstrong planted the victory flag for America on the moon's surface. But once that goal was achieved, public interest in the program began a slow fade.
Now, with SpaceX's successful flight, a new era of space flight is coming into focus - an era gaining its strength not from the largesse of governments, but from the power of the private sector.
When Dragon docked with the station one week ago, NASA astronaut Dan Pettit compared its arrival to the pounding of the golden spike, a nearly mythical event that, more than a century ago, linked the two halves of a quickly expanding America. The analogy fits in the respect that the railroads were completed by government-backed entrepreneurs with visions of profits on the horizon in their heads, just as SpaceX's Elon Musk, the co-inventor of PayPal, is working under a $1.6 billion contract to provide six cargo missions.
There's no profit in it yet, but with Musk involved, that will follow soon, as may the long-delayed fruition of a dream of the Boomer generation, that spaceflight would become as routine - and as accessible - as a stroll around the neighborhood.