In May of last year the president ordered a review of NASA’s human space flight program. His panel eventually concluded the space shuttle should be grounded and NASA’s resources should be moved toward private spaceflight, setting the stage for a new rash of criticism for the president.
Normally dormant space legends like Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and James Lovell awoke from a long sleep to openly ridicule the president for retiring the space shuttle, putting a lot of people in Texas and Forida out of work and rerouting American astronaut flights through Kazakhstan. The astronauts claimed that Obama’s plans to abandon a return to the moon were misguided and balked at the idea of depending on developments in private space flight to get us into space.
“If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered,”Neil Armstrong told a senate committee in May. “I do not believe that this would be in our best interests.”
So, after much criticism for changing the course of American spaceflight to depend on a burgeoning, yet unproven private space flight industry, President Obama received some justification for his plan with the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket last week (see below).
“I think this bodes very well for the Obama plan,” Space.com reported the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, as saying after the launch. “It really helps vindicate the approach he’s taking.”
While the launch is just one event from one small company, it represents a major step in demonstrating that a private company is fully capable of delivering a payload to space and doing so for far cheaper than the government. Musk, who made millions from starting and selling the internet company PayPal, has also announced that he plans for the maiden launch of his Dragon capsule later this summer. The Dragon vessel is designed to bring cargo and astronauts to the space station, which Musk says he expects the craft to be ready for in the next 2-3 years.
The success of the Dragon vehicle and its rivals are critical pieces in Obama’s space plan. Though both Bush and Obama planned to retire the aging space shuttle fleet once the ISS had been completed, Bush’s plan would have relaxed the need for the shuttles by phasing out ISS. Obama’s space plan keeps the ISS going likely until 2020, so having the ability to get to and from low-earth orbit remains critical despite our lack of ability to do so independently.
The president has also canceled the Orion vehicle program which was slated to take humans back to the moon by 2020, instead placing emphasis on traveling to an asteroid and then eventually Mars. While these larger projects are still remaining inside the space agency and not being farmed out to the so called “new space” industry, the coming years of NASA projects will depend on being able to shift its focus out of low-earth orbit and out into the solar system.
This week saw a rash of excellent articles on the new space race, here’s some of my favorites:
Wired.com – Space 2.X:The Private Rocket Race Takes Off (Compelete with an awesome photo tour of SpaceX facilities)
The New York Times – In New Space Race, Enter the Entrepreneurs
MSNBC’s Cosmic Log: SpaceX fans and foes speak out