NASA is now estimating that the shuttle replacement will enter flight testing in late 2017. Once the testing program has concluded some 5 years beyond that, we are told to expect the first missions carrying people to begin in 2025 with a flight to an asteroid. And even when manned missions do commence, only a single flight per year is expected.
Of course, any estimates going beyond 4 years or the end of any given administration – which ever comes first – are pure fantasy. If history teaches us anything, it’s that one may safely add an additional 5 years to estimates, which invariably prove to be overly optimistic.
Even the space shuttle with its exorbitant cost of operation flew at a rate of 4 to 5 per year, so if the government is unable to maintain that level, how can it possibly expect to produce a cost-effective space launch system for the American people?
In the business of making space affordable, costs are driven down in large part through economy of scale. That means the highest possible flight rate, and once per year doesn’t even begin to make a dent.
American innovation can and is making all the difference, but it would seem that it’s not coming from the historical source. It’s coming from private industry. With little fanfare in the mainstream media, a company called SpaceX, headed up by a pioneer in the truest sense, has set itself in the position of offering access to space at the lowest prices on earth, bar none. It’s nearest competitor United Launch Alliance or ULA, the highly government subsidized collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, lags behind in a distant second place.
From the beginning, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has had a clear vision of how to propel the US back into the forefront of space exploration. He and his engineers have designed their Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules with the idea of carrying people, and they’ll have them in production and ready to carry out missions years before the government can field its own system. With Russia, China and India eagerly poised to spring ahead of the US with flights to the moon, Musk and a cadre of other American astronautical trailblazers will undoubtedly frustrate those efforts. China is publicly admitting that they cannot hope to match the prices offered by SpaceX. Still further, Bigelow Aerospace, another American company, is prepared to turn out space stations like hotels and seed humanity in space by the thousands.
In the final analysis, government is attempting a role suited to private industry. It should stick to what it does best: research and development. The space launch system being proposed by NASA, and the huge sums of money it will require, amount to a duplication of effort. Those funds should instead by devoted to designing systems for the purpose of carrying people from earth orbit to deep space.
For the last couple of years our leadership has feverishly stabbed at the question, “With what do we replace the space shuttle?” But it’s the wrong question. Real space visionaries ask instead, “What’s next?” The former presupposes a need for another machine to perform the same job as it predecessor, the latter looks beyond to the next frontier, to deep space. And to be sure, earth orbit is not the frontier.
NASA has forgotten its purpose, and it’s a sad state of affairs we’ll likely endure until a change of leadership.