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After Shuttle, America's Space Future in Hands of Private Entrepreneurs

July 6, 2011 - 6:00pm

After the space shuttle Atlantis returns from the program's final flight, America's future suborbital missions will be contracted out to a growing array of commercial ventures. Privateers say they can conduct deep-space probes as well and far cheaper than NASA.

Following this last 12-day Atlantis mission from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is building a Falcon-9 Heavy rocket capable of lifting hefty 53-ton payloads into orbit.

SpaceX, as it's called, has already successfully flown its Dragon capsule, making the California company the first commercial enterprise to launch, fly, land and recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit

Elsewhere, Boeing is developing a CST-100 capsule capable of holding up to seven crew members and reused several times.

Sierra Nevada, Virgin Atlantic and Blue Origin are among the other companies actively working on new, private space initiatives.

"Falcon-9 Heavy launches are priced at about $100 million each, and Dragons are cheaper. With this approach, we could send expeditions to Mars at half the cost to launch as space shuttle flight," predicts Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics of Lakewood, Colo.

On track for an inaugural launch in 2013, the Falcon-9 will help bridge the "space gap" until a shuttle-less NASA can get back in the game. Congress wants the agency to have an operational program by 2016, though --amid continued wrangling with the Obama administration --it's unclear that the necessary funding will be available.

"NASA's astronauts have gone nowhere new since 1972, but these four decades of wasteful stagnation need not continue. If President Obama were to act decisively and embrace [private ventures], we could have our first team of human explorers on the Red Planet by 2016," said Zubrin, who also heads the Mars Society.

Phil Plait, who worked on the Hubble telescope and writes Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomy blog, shares Zubrin's enthusiasm.

"SpaceX went from an idea to launching their first Falcon-9 orbital rocket in less than a decade," Plait wrote recently. It is currently undergoing testing to meet NASA's man-rating qualifications.

While the new space cowboys raise their sights, NASA has been flying in circles.

For all its initial innovation and impressive accomplishments -- including dozens of landmark scientific advances -- the shuttle program has stagnated. Less durable than advertised, the fleet of "space trucks" flew fewer missions than hoped and operational costs never came down. The tragic explosions of Challenger and Columbia signaled the beginning of the end.

Elon Musk, the co-creator of PayPal and founder of SpaceX, estimates that his company's Falcon-9 rocket can launch for one-tenth the cost of a shuttle flight. NASA has already contracted with SpaceX to resupply the International Space Station after the shuttle retires.

Looking beyond, Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, says the nation can do better than "spending $10 billion per year for the next two or three decades on a human space flight program mired in low Earth orbit."

Suggests Plait: "Let private companies take over low Earth operations and let NASA be free to pursue literally higher goals."

Whichever way the duties are divided, private ventures will play an increasing role in America's future space exploration. At minimum, companies like SpaceX can offer a home-grown alternative to the Russians, who will charge U.S. astronauts more than $50 million per seat on Soyuz rocket trips to the ISS.

"Atlantis will touch down on July 20 -- the very day, 42 years ago, that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon," Plait notes.

"How long will it be before we see something like that again?"

Space Florida President Frank DiBello said Floridians need not be concerned about the envisioned transition toward more private ventures.

"While shuttle retirement will certainly impact Florida in the near term, there is an incredibly bright future for next-generation space programs in Florida," he said.

"I see a tripling of Florida's space industry by 2020 as we work with diversified, space-enabled markets -- such as satellite systems, robotics, clean energy, emergency and environmental monitoring, life sciences, and space tourism -- to establish and grow their businesses here in the Sunshine State," DiBello said in a statement.

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Contact KenricWard at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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