Get ready for private enterprise to move further into space travel.
Things are going from bad to worse for NASA. Its latest foray into space exploration, through the much-hyped launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, with Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean on board, has met with problem after problem.
On August 25, Atlantis, poised for launch, got zapped by lightning, after which engineers commented on a distinctive "charred smell." A few days later, the shuttle rumbled out to the launch pad yet again, only to be delayed by tropical storm Ernesto. Last week, takeoff was delayed again due to problems with a fuel cell buried under 18 tons of cargo.
NASA was feeling quite smug in July, when Space Shuttle Discovery landed safely despite bits of insulating foam breaking off its fuel tank during its Independence Day liftoff.
Missing chunks of insulating foam were the culprit responsible for Space Shuttle Columbia's disintegration on re-entry in 2003, killing everyone on board. So NASA chief engineer Chris Scolese and chief safety officer Bryan O'Connor had recommended grounding Discovery. Politicians and administrators decided to go ahead with the launch anyway, in an effort to rekindle the public's faith in NASA's ability to put people in space.
That success can't disguise the fact that the shuttle technology is outdated. NASA itself is a relic of the Cold War era, when billions of dollars were poured into the top-heavy, mission-first organization. Today this model is quickly being supplanted by businesses determined to prove that space travel is possible outside the confines of a government department and that the process is not as expensive or dangerous as NASA wants us believe.
In 2001, the Russian space program, mainly because of economic necessity, allowed American businessman Dennis Tito to blast off in a Soyuz rocket headed for the International Space Station (ISS). This has paved the way for private enterprises to push for space travel as a commercial venture.
A few weeks ago, Japanese space tourist Daisuke "Dice-K" Enomoto narrowly failed a physical, barring him from joining American and Russian astronauts in a Russian-launched Soyuz vehicle bound for the ISS.
In late 2004, SpaceShipOne, a privately designed, built and piloted spacecraft, took three passengers to an altitude of 100 kilometres, returned safely, then repeated the feat within two weeks. This accomplishment netted the team, led by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, the $10 million Ansari X Prize, designed to inspire private industry to think of space as the next frontier.
Virgin Galactic, a new partnership between Rutan and Virgin Group guru Richard Branson, may be the first company to offer tourists sub-orbital trips around the Earth. Branson also wants to be the first to launch an orbiting space hotel.
But Las Vegas real-estate mogul Robert Bigelow might beat him to it. Bigelow launched a scale model of his inflatable space module July 12 at a launch pad in Russia; it achieved an orbit of 550 kilometres. He hopes to have a full-sized orbiting hotel the size of a three-bedroom house open for tourism by 2012.
SpaceX, founded by PayPal founder Elon Musk, expects to launch its rocket, Falcon 1, this fall after a first attempt failed last spring. The next step for SpaceX is the Falcon 9, a much bigger rocket with enough room on board to transport people to the ISS.
As for NASA, the agency will keep pushing the old shuttle fleet technology until 2011, when it will phase in a new design, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), a contract given to Lockheed Martin just last week.
But even NASA is admitting that it has to start letting private interests in on the game. It recently announced that it is amenable to public-private partnerships. Organizers of a new project called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) are sifting through proposals to find cheaper, safer ways to put people in space.
NASA's control of space travel is officially slipping away.