As the space shuttle Atlantis returned to terra firma this week, it marked the end of the space shuttle era for NASA. What began as a project that was supposed to make space travel more affordable, the space shuttle program didn't achieve that, but it did contribute mightily to the construction of the International Space Station, satellite launches, and continued study of the universe.
However, the program cost quite a bit of money. NASA states that it cost $1.7 billion to construct the Endeavor space shuttle. As for launching that superexpensive ride, the Kennedy Space Center suggests that it costs about $450 million per mission. During these days of intense budget scrutiny on the federal level and a push to reign in all sorts of spending, NASA has been a prime target. Arguably, the space shuttle program might have been a victim of these cost-conscious days; it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that NASA needed to change things up.
And it has. NASA has turned to the private sector to help develop a "space taxi" that can whisk astronauts—and space tourists—to and from the Space Station. That likely won't be commercialized until 2016, however. Until that time, NASA is purchasing rides on a Russian spacecraft for its astronauts.
Needless to say, many aren't happy. Old-school astronauts laugh that we are regressing to the days of putting a tin can on top of a giant rocket. Baby boomers are saddened that they will never be able to witness another astronaut plant an American flag on the moon. The science community fears that important discoveries and innovations associated with space travel will never occur because its leading minds no longer have access to the federal research dollars.
They all should enjoy a nice glass of Tang and chill out.
The private sector is going to absorb a lot of the engineering and scientific effort, which is probably a good thing. Metal fabricating expertise will play a large part, and those folks definitely know something about cost-effective ways to produce metal parts. My co-worker Tim Heston has written about this type of private sector effort, and it's hard to hide the excitement as the exploration of the final frontier has been opened up to all to participate, not just one federal space agency.
I believe the personnel working for these start-ups and large aerospace companies will step up and meet the challenge. Frankly, I've always thought these were the true heroes of the space program.
Remember the scene from Ron Howard's movie "Apollo 13," when an engineering team had to devise a way for the command module's square air cleaners to be used in the lunar module's round receptacles to combat the buildup of carbon dioxide in the capsule's interior. (Talk about a design flaw.) A box of stuff, replicating what was available to the astronauts on the capsule, was thrown on the table, and the engineers were told to make it happen. Meanwhile, they all knew that the astronauts would die if they could not deliver a proper fix. That's intelligence and creativity under fire. That same spirit lives on every day in the manufacturing community.
It also will live on in next-generation space travel. After all, we're working with another deadline of sorts. Noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has stated that human species can continue only by colonizing other planets . If we can't do this, the entire human race is likely to end because we will have collectively harmed this planet to the point where it can no longer sustain life, or because a space-related disaster, such as an asteroid hitting the Earth, will wipe everything out.
So we have that going for us.