The Changing of the Guard

Space Shuttle Program Commemorative Patch, as ...

Space Shuttle Program Commemorative Patch, as designed by Blake Dumesnil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is very difficult for me.

I graduated from highschool in the spring of 1980…so I have followed the shuttle program throughout my adult life. During that time I have watched the televised or Internet coverage of every launch that occasion would permit. On January of 1984 while a college student at Weber State University, I was home watching STS-51 when Challenger exploded. I found out about Columbia after the fact…screaming in frustration at that senseless loss.

The Space Shuttle program was a success, by almost every measurement. It did not succeed in its original billing line…routine access to space…but that is coming soon and the 30 years of technology advancement pushed forward by the Shuttle effort has brought us there. It’s achievements, both large and small, are too lengthy for me to thoroughly list.

Some say that it was a mistake…was it? Some say that the ISS design and orbit were not ambitious enough.

I was there when the shuttle first launched…well not there there…and it was, by far, the most advanced spacecraft of its time and rode the ragged edge of available technology. If it was unreliable and expensive it is only because it stretched the envelope in so many directions at once. The ISS could not have been scoped to the size that it is without the shuttle and the shuttle was all that it could have been for what it does.

The Space Shuttle Discovery over the VAB.

I will miss the space shuttles a lot, and that has made it difficult for me to write about these 747 transport flights of the orbiters to their final destinations in museums. The shuttle has been the flagship for so long that its retirement feels to me like a resignation of leadership…and it is.

I was disappointed when President Bush canceled the shuttle program, but not very much. In spite of my years of support of the shuttles, I too was weary of its unstable safety and launch record and I was ready for a change. At the time, I thought that change was Constellation. To some extent I still do.  But a new effort has stepped up, promising to conquer in the four areas where the Shuttle Program failed. These are things that I have dreamed about ever since I sat on the carpet in front of my parent’s old TV as a child and watched Apollo.

1-Routine access to space.
2-New space-based industries outside of Low Earth Orbit.
3-Truly reusable spacecraft.
4-Unprecedented low-cost.

This effort is Commercial Space, but it is in danger. Not in danger of being lost, because I think that no amount of Congressional interference can stop it (short of a law completely prohibiting it). However, it can be curtailed, delayed, and back-scoped to a point that delays free access to space in ways that our country cannot afford.

The New Space companies are pushing down technological and fiscal barriers faster than ever before, and NASA is on board with knowledge sharing and development funding that these companies need to speed us back to a manned launch ability as soon as possible. Not only that, but this ability is destined to achieve a low-cost price point that is, in and of itself, the most significant envelope ever stretched in the advancement of a human space presence.

Fight for it. The more separate companies have the ability to launch people into space, the bigger and faster and broader this new paradigm will grow. Every one of these companies employ a seperate group of scientists with an ear to NASA experience but who bend our capabilities outward in a separate direction, at 10% of the cost that it would take NASA to do the same internally.

And here’s the thing, they are free. Free from Congress telling them “Build here” or “Build there”. Free from unstable, short term and competing interests telling them about national priorities or direction. Unfettered innovation, funded by a comparatively tiny check with very few strings attached.

New Space is the new leadership that will rise from the ashes of the old. All over the world, various countries have started to duplicate the previous successes of NASA, they won’t need the same amount of time that we did to get where we are.  The disadvantage of being the first in line in the jungle is you gotta be the one to hack down the foliage. It is time to hand the machete to another of our country’s strongest arms…the one that saved our bacon in World War II, mass-produced industry; and the one that has kept us ahead of the world for over two hundred years, nearly unfettered free enterprise.

Our new goal is the commercial availability of space, made possible by a continually plunging price point for space access.  It represents the new tech industry for our children’s generation to replace the .com boom of the 90s that changed our world and set the stage for where we are today.  We have at our fingertips the solution to a host of our country’s problems, including the falling dollar, loss of wealth at home, loss of prestige abroad, and a rising trade deficit.

Why wait?  Why postpone this and stunt its growth by starving the already microscopic funding of COTs and CCDev?

Your future, the country’s future, your children’s future…are in your hands.  Fight for it.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon test flight of 2010.

~ by Bill Housley on April 28, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Changing of the Guard”

  1. Even if the SpaceX Falcon does fulfil its promise of being a regular carrier into space, the British Skylon will if the current engine tests are successful. Somehow, I don’t think the American pride will let us Brits be the only one with a reuseable spaceplane…

    • I think that mass produced, runway-to-runway spaceplanes are where things are going to end up, but they need a healthy industry to support them and time to develop.

      Not too much time though, things will move fast.

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