When the space shuttle Discovery flew atop its 747 carrier plane from the Kennedy Space Center to Washington, D.C., and its new home at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, on April 17, 2012, it was a photographic crowd-pleaser of a moment. Many in the crowd of spectators openly wept to see the space shuttle era end.
Actually, the space shuttle's permanent grounding was nearly a dozen years overdue. Back in 1986, the high-powered Rogers and Paine commissions investigating the Challenger accident called for the development of a new space transport system within 15 years--i.e., by 2001.
The shuttle was a technical marvel in its time, but today it is an aged and obsolete vehicle. It was not built for a twenty-first-century world. Continuing to fly the space shuttle would be akin to a long-distance commute to work on a high-speed freeway every day with a Model T--costly and with a high risk of failure.
Some reasons for grounding the space shuttle include metal fatigue, miles of hidden wiring that cannot be replaced or reconditioned, fragile ceramic tiles in the thermal protection system (which cost a fortune to recondition after every flight and that require the services of a standing army of technicians), and the foam insulation that still poses hazards despite NASA's investment of more than $1.5 billion to address the problem after the Columbia accident in 2003.
The point is that it is actually a good thing that the shuttle is grounded. The Shuttle represents the past. New commercial space transportation systems represent the future. As Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently said, "We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry." The commercial space age will develop rapidly around three major enterprises:
* Space tourism/space adventures that allow citizen astronauts to fly into outer space on suborbital flights, starting with Virgin Galactic flights in 2013.
* Commercial space transport to access the International Space Station (ISS) and even to link up to private space stations. The first of these flights will only truck cargo to the ISS, but upgraded versions of the Antares/Cygnus and Falcon 9/Dragon could soon taxi astronauts into space and back.
* Hypersonic transport that could allow executives and high-flying jet-setters to move from continent to continent in a few hours' time.
NASAS COMMERCIAL SPACE INITIATIVES
While entrepreneurs are leading the way, NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) are also an important aspect of the emerging new commercial space industry. NASA has awarded contracts worth more than $3.5 billion to the Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX Corporation to develop commercial cargo lift operations to the ISS. To collect the full contract amount, however, each company must deliver a total of 20 metric tons of cargo over the course of eight to 12 resupply missions.
The Orbital Sciences Corporation has developed the Antares launch vehicle, which is capable of lifting 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) to low-Earth orbit, and a cargo service vehicle known as the Cygnus. The SpaceX Corporation (full name, the Space Exploration Technology Corporation) has developed the Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft.
Tests of both the OSC and SpaceX space systems and launchers are now under way with positive results to date, highlighted with the SpaceX Dragon capsule docking with the ISS on May 25, 2012. NASA has also issued $50 million in contracts to a number of companies (including Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, ATK, Excalibur Almaz, and the United Launch Alliance) to study technical design concepts for new commercial lift capabilities that could ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. The range of new commercial space businesses seems to be expanding almost exponentially:
* Space tourism/space adventures. …