The future of space exploration???

So what does the future hold for manned space exploration?

During my week in Texas I kept asking that question.  Often times, I was met with a glare, a look of despair, or just a sullen look.  Sometimes, you could get someone to open up.  There was a strong negative attitude.  One anonymous NASA employee told me, “I don’t know where things are going.  NASA is suffering a lack of leadership right now, both from the head of NASA and from the White House.”    Congress has been also critical of the lack of direction at NASA as you can read in this article in Florida Today.   Another NASA employee told me that Obama was punishing Texas and Florida because they are blue states.

At the end of our week in Texas, we finally had an official spokesperson talk to us about the future of NASA.  He told us that NASA has mastered the art of low orbital space flight (such as flying to the International Space Station) and it was time for Private Enterprise to do that. What he is talking about is the CRUSR program also know as the Flight Opportunities Program. Here is an article announcing that NASA selects seven firms to provide Taxi service to low orbit.   Looks like Boeing might be taking over an old Space Shuttle hanger to build a space taxi according to Florida Today.  The official spokesperson went on to tell us that NASA was going to do what NASA does best, which is break new ground and focus on high orbital space flight.  So sending robots to other planets, and sending people to the moon, or Mars, or an asteroid.

Now compare that to the message I heard when I got to Palmdale.   First, we were presented with a vision of sending lots of people into space and that the commercial space program was going to fill that gap and fulfill the Flight Opportunities Program.   However, then a presented from NASA was very critical of that program.  This person’s attitude was that only NASA can achieve safe and responsible spaceflight.  NASA will always be there, but companies come and go every few years and will not have the continuity of knowledge needed for a space program.  She gave several examples of technology companies that are no longer in business.

When our speaker from XCOR talked to us, one thing resonated with me.  “NASA does not want to fly YOU into space.  We want to fly YOU into space.  And if we cannot do it safely, who is going to spend $90,000 on a ticket into space.”  Their business model depends on them having a top notch safety record.

As an interesting comparison, one should think about the development of the airline industry during the time of Roosevelt after the Air Mail Scandal. The US Army Air Corps attempted to deliver the mail with disastrous results.  So thus, the airlines were contracted to deliver the mail which developed the civil aviation industry.  Will we see the civil space industry develop in a similar manner?

Part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program was FAST. This program supplied the funding to help spin off the zero gravity airplane rides that I went on.  NASA used to fly and maintain their own airplanes.  But the Zero G Company flies the plane, and NASA contracts them for research and education.  And for $6000 you can buy a ticket on a Zero-G airplane ride out of Vegas, Nashville, or Hawaii!  You can even have parties in Zero-G.  Weddings, bachelor parties, bar-mitzvahs!  When I was talking to the owner of Zero-G, he showed me the software he wrote which tracks the acceleration due to gravity on the plane ride.  Here is the catch.  They get paid by NASA for how close each parabola approximates microgravity.   So they have a profit motive for a high quality microgravity experience.

So what is the deal with Teachers In Space and the Pathfinder Astronauts?  Commercial space has a vested interest in not only developing a product, but also in producing future engineers, pilots, and customers for this developing industry.  I met many at NASA who don’t believe that private industry can fill these shoes.  And it won’t happen overnight.  But I am a believer.