- The shuttle is out. When NASA retires the space shuttle in the middle of next year, the U.S. will no longer be able to launch astronauts or supplies to the International Space Station.
- Private companies are in. The Obama administration has canceled Constellation, the planned successor to the shuttle, and instead plans to rely on private companies to ferry astronauts.
- Hopes are high. In theory, early government support of daring entrepreneurs could jump-start a vibrant economy centered on space travel, with competition pushing prices ever lower.
- Risks are, too. Yet no one knows if start-up companies will be able to deliver safe, affordable, reliable spacecraft. If they fail, human exploration of space could be set back by decades.
Two years ago deceased Star Trek actor James “Scotty” Doohan was granted one last adventure, courtesy of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. SpaceX, a privately funded company based in Hawthorne, Calif., had been formed in 2002 with the mission of going where no start-up had gone before: Earth orbit. In August 2008 SpaceX loaded Doohan’s cremated remains onto the third test flight of its Falcon 1, a liquid oxygen- and kerosene-fueled rocket bound for orbit. Yet about two minutes into the flight Doohan’s final voyage ended prematurely when the rocket’s first stage crashed into the second stage during separation. It was SpaceX’s third failure in three attempts.
Well, what did you expect? sneered old NASA hands, aerospace executives and the many others who hew to the conventional wisdom that safely ushering payloads and especially people hundreds of kilometers above Earth is a job for no less than armies of engineers, technicians and managers backed by billions in funding and decades-long development cycles. Space, after all, is hard. A small, private operation might be able to send a little stunt ship wobbling up tens of kilometers, as entrepreneur-engineer Burt Rutan did in 2004 to win the X-Prize. But that was a parlor trick compared with the kinds of operations NASA has been running over the years with the space shuttle and International Space Station. When you’re going orbital, 100 kilometers is merely the length of the driveway, at the end of which you’d better be accelerating hard toward the seven kilometers a second needed to keep a payload falling around Earth 300 kilometers up.
This article was originally published with the title Jump-Starting the Orbital Economy.