Today’s launch of the Atlantis was the final launch of any Space Shuttle, after a little over 30 years of space voyages for the program. Its final return to Earth, currently scheduled for July 20, not-so-coincidentally the 42nd anniversary of the first moon landing, will mark the end of an era. But what era will that be?
To listen to many of the hysterical cries a year and a half ago, when the administration abruptly canceled the out-of-control Constellation program — which, had it succeeded on its own terms, would basically have repeated the Apollo missions over half a century later, at horrific cost and years behind schedule — today’s launch marks the end of American human space flight itself. But to think this is to be oblivious to the space industry that is rapidly forming: that of private, for-profit providers operating for private and public purposes. A number of companies are developing systems to deliver passengers to both suborbit and Earth orbit. Some of the suborbital ones — Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, and Blue Origin — may start test flights into space next year. They may start offering suborbital transportation services, both for people who want to experience space and serious researchers, a year or so later.
For orbital transportation, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched and recovered a pressurized capsule last December that could have carried a private astronaut, and is expected to be capable of doing so safely in three or four years. Blue Origin and Boeing are also developing capsules of their own, and Sierra Nevada Corporation is working on a small lifting body that will, like the Shuttle, be able to glide to a landing on a runway.
While some of these companies are receiving NASA funds, the amounts are comparatively trivial and on the basis of fixed-price milestones, not the vast expenditures of the bloated cost-plus contracts that led to all the overruns and schedule slips on the Constellation and other traditional NASA programs. With the end of the Shuttle, NASA desperately needs private services to be able to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and with signs that fiscal sanity may be taking hold in Washington, it equally desperately needs to get such services at a more affordable price than either the Shuttle or the Space Launch System can offer. When one totals up all of the program costs over the decades, each Shuttle flight cost well over a billion dollars, and each flight of the SLS will likely cost even more. In contrast, SpaceX quotes a price of $20 million a seat for astronauts — less than one-third of the price we’re now being charged by the Russians, who offer the only means of supporting ISS for crew transfer and lifeboats until we get the new systems on line.
What is really coming to an end is an anomalous and, in a sense, un-American era of belief in Big Government in space. It started in the panic of Sputnik and the “missile gap,” and was exacerbated by being beaten again when the Russians sent the first man into space — in response to which Pres. Jack Kennedy called for a race to the moon. In so doing, he established a paradigm for how we would do space flight that was a huge departure from Dwight Eisenhower’s conception of NASA. NASA was never intended to develop and operate launch systems, but was supposed to provide the technologies needed to keep the young American space industry on the leading edge, as the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics had with aviation for decades. With Apollo’s success, most accepted this mode as normal, despite the fact that the moon program was ultimately canceled because of its high cost. At that point, moving the huge existing NASA centers and contractor base (and political contributions and votes) on to a next big project — the Shuttle — seemed natural, though in retrospect it was as absurd as a country developing its own unique airplane and using it as the basis for a state-run airline, with exactly the results one might expect from such a project.
Astoundingly, the president, of all people, seems to get this much better than some supposed conservatives and Republicans. In his Twitter session, he actually expanded on his vision of space:
We’re still using the same models for space travel that we used with the Apollo program 30, 40 years ago. And so what we’ve said is, rather than keep on doing the same thing, let’s invest in basic research around new technologies that can get us places faster, allow human space flight to last longer.
And what you’re seeing now is NASA, I think, redefining its mission. And we’ve set a goal to let’s ultimately get to Mars. A good pit stop is an asteroid. I haven’t actually — we haven’t identified the actual asteroid yet, in case people are wondering. [Laughter.] But the point is, let’s start stretching the boundaries, so we’re not doing the same thing over and over again, but rather let’s start thinking about what’s the next horizon, what’s the next frontier out there.
But in order to do that, we’re actually going to need some technological breakthroughs that we don’t have yet. And what we can do is for some of this low-orbit stuff, some of the more routine space travel — obviously no space travel is routine, but it could become more routine over time — let’s allow the private sector to get in so that they can, for example, send these low-Earth-orbit vehicles into space, and we may be able to achieve a point in time where those of you who are just dying to go into space, you can buy a ticket, and a private carrier can potentially take you up there,while the government focuses on the big breakthroughs that require much larger investments and involve much greater risk.