2011 marked the end of NASA’s 30-year old Space Shuttle program, and many were left wondering what would come of space travel and exploration. What will become of NASA? Will the private sector take over space travel?
NASA’s Space Shuttle program commenced on April 12, 1981, with the first orbital flight, STS-1, by the shuttle Columbia. The program concluded with its last mission, STS-135, flown by Atlantis, launched on July 8, 2011. The Space Shuttle Program formally ended on August 31, 2011, after 133 successful but 2 disastrous missions.
In 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after the launch killing all seven crew members. In 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry killing all seven crew members.
The Space Shuttle program’s successor was to be Project Constellation, with its goal to operate away from Earth’s orbit and open deep space exploration. The Constellation program was, however, not supported by the Obama administration and, in October 2010, it was brought to an end. Instead, the Obama administration endorsed a plan that heavily relied on the private sector.
Private companies seized the opportunities and NASA has already awarded several contracts for building new age spacecrafts. Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, the Boeing Company and the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) were among awarded companies.
SpaceX plans to launch its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the robotic Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on February 7, 2012. The company anticipates that, with NASA’s support, it’ll be ready for manned missions by 2014. NASA will have to pay a lot for its astronauts to hitch a ride on SpaceX spacecratfs; the price of a single seat is $20 million.
Private space exploration gives more opportunities for private citizens to catch a flight into space; for private citizens with thick wallets, that is.
Space Adventures, the first company to send a multimillionaire Dennis Tito up into space in 2001, expects space travel to be dominated by private companies over the next few years and plans to send more people into space. Thus far, Space Adventures is the only company to have flown a space tourist to the International Space Station; seven people since 2001, with the price of the trip ranging from $20 million to $35 million. Space Adventures has been using Russian Soyuz and has recently partnered with Boeing to sell seats for any future space trips.
With Space Shuttle program ending and private space travel emerging, are the glory days of NASA over?
While NASA will have to pay for the use of commercial or Russian spacecrafts to hitch rides to the Space Station, it sets up for deep space exploration. On September 14, 2011, NASA announced it was ready to move forward with the development of the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift launch vehicle to carry the human exploration of space beyond Earth’s orbit.
Some experts doubt whether this plan will ever succeed, and some argue that NASA shouldn't build its own deep space rocket but should find ways to use existing commercially available rockets.
The question is, if NASA doesn’t replace the retired Space Shuttle program and canceled Project Constellation with a successful development of its own plan to take exploration deep into space, will the private space industry take over and mark the end of the famous governmental space agency? Some private companies are already developing programs to get into space independently from NASA.
Will Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center and Mission Control Center become a space-for-rent for private companies to train their own astronauts, and launch and control their own spacecrafts?
What will happen to the future human space exploration? Will it be limited to commercial space tourism?
The future of NASA and space exploration seem uncertain as we witness big changes in space programs and space travel.
Meanwhile, if anyone has “extra cash”, New Year’s wishes can well include a dream trip into space.
There are two space travel packages available at Space Adventures. An expensive option: a $50 million trip to the International Space Station that includes lots of training. A “cheap” option: an $110,000 trip to the sub-orbital space, 68 miles (110 km) above the earth’s surface.
For others, there’s a New Year’s resolution to be patient and wait for affordable transcontinental flights… for their great-great-grandchildren.