I had mixed feelings when I heard about NASA’s Space Shuttle retirement in 2011, and like many Americans, I wondered what would be next. I paid close attention to the retirement because I have always been interested in space. Maybe my interest in space had to do with watching Toy Story so many times and seeing Buzz Lightyear or receiving a Lego space shuttle kit for my birthday when I was young. Maybe part of my interest comes from my uncle who is an aerospace engineer and has worked for Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and now SpaceX. When I was young, he would always give me a new model of whatever he was currently working on or had worked on. He grabbed my attention every time he would talk about a project he had worked on, like the original Stealth Bomber project or when NASA partnered with Lockheed Martin to build the X-33, which was supposed to replace the Space Shuttle.
The space shuttle offered a revolutionary new way to get into space in 1981, but has since become a showcase of stagnation for NASA. The budget for the government space agency has shrunk in the past few decades since the retirement of the Apollo program, causing NASA to reevaluate its projects and goals. In total, the budget for the space agency is about $18 billion and makes up about .5% of the total federal budget (Schwab 1). NASA had to retire the shuttle so they could afford to build a new vehicle for getting into space, but nothing concrete or specific has been announced, leaving many to wonder what is next.
In the absence of the space shuttle, the private industry has grown considerably and many companies have been investing in space tourism and travel. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, arguably has the biggest lead so far. It has delivered cargo to the International Space Station multiple times, the most recent time being just a few weeks ago. Other companies, such as Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have also been hard at work. Virgin Galactic, part of the larger Virgin Company, which was founded by Sir Richard Branson, will offer trips into space later this year “for $200,000, which includes training on the ground and a two hour flight”(Lunua 3). The cost will be out of reach for the masses at first, but with time, the cost will come down like any other technology.
What is clear is that both the private space industry and NASA are good at certain things. What people remember about NASA is when President Kennedy challenged the nation to send a man to the moon before the decade was up. People remember Neil Armstrong’s famous first words, as he became the first human to walk on the moon. They remember the Mars Rover exploring the unscathed Mars’s surface and sending amazing photos back to Earth. In short, people remember NASA for the big stuff; they are remembered in the same way we remember Christopher Columbus or Lewis and Clark. Using this public perception, NASA could cement its future for good as an important and useful part of the government. NASA must loosen its grip on low Earth orbit missions and let the private industry take hold if humans are ever going to make space travel and tourism a reality. Instead of Focusing on small stuff, like shuttling supplies to and from the International Space Station and building new telescopes, NASA could once again explore the stars and go where no man has gone before.
Meanwhile, the private space industry in recent years has proven that they are up to the challenge of space travel and tourism. Trips into space for the public will soon be offered and cargo delivery has already become a reality. Like any technology, space travel will be extremely expensive at first, but with time, it will become affordable for the masses. The private industry “routinely takes technologies pioneered by the government – like air mail, computers and the Internet – and turns them into affordable, reliable and robust industries” (Dimandis 2). They are able to do this because operating within a profitable budget is something that will keep the costs down for the private industry. Not only that, but competition in the marketplace will drive down prices as well. Without political and public opinion stumbling blocks, which NASA routinely must cope with, the private industry can operate with much more clarity, precision, and efficiently.
The private industry, however, cannot achieve everything on its own. NASA should remain operative, with a larger budget than it currently has. What could propel human involvement in space to new heights is a combination of government and private industry; just like is done here on Earth. The government agency has spent plenty of time researching and experimenting with low Earth orbit missions enough to move on and let the private industry take over. Letting SpaceX, a private company, deliver cargo to the International Space Station has been the first step. Next could come handing over the ISS completely to private companies. As the private industry moves itself into low Earth Orbit, NASA could focus on the next step: going back to the moon. After establishing enough research and time with the moon, the agency could then move onto the planet that has entertained people’s imaginations for the longest time: Mars. As NASA focuses on Mars, the private industry could then turn its attention to the moon. The pattern could repeat time after time and could be a great way to shape space tourism, travel and exploration. In a sense, NASA could become the next Christopher Columbus or Lewis and Clark. The private industry could become the settlers who settled on newly discovered land after it had been mapped and explored.
In 1957, the first Space Age began with the launch of Sputnik. Now, the 21st century has marked the second Space Age, with the launch of private space industries. Going forward, NASA and the private industry must work hand in hand to accomplish space travel and exploration. The old ways of approaching space must be forgotten and new paths must be made. NASA must give up its grip on low Earth orbit and focus on exploration while the private industry must be given a chance to flex its muscles and prove that it’s up to the challenge. If this can be done, we will have entered a new era of human history and will have proven that anything is possible if we set our minds to it.
Diamandis, Peter. “Space: The Final Frontier of Profit?.”Wall Street Journal [New York City ] 13 Feb 2010, n. pag. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
Lunau, Kate. “Shooting For The Stars- Privately.” Maclean’s 124.44 (2011): 48-50. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
Schwab, Fred. “Hitchhiking To The Final Frontier?.” Earth (1943345X) 56.7 (2011): 72. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.