Burt Rutan with his SpaceShipOne , the first privately developed and financed craft to enter the realm of space twice within a two-week period and receive the Ansari X-Prize. (Photo credit: Burt Rutan)

 
Larry Bell, Contributor
I write about climate, energy, environmental and space policy issues.

OP/ED | 2/19/2013 @ 8:00AM

Can Commercial Space Rescue NASA From Deadly Public Indifference?

Space suddenly became a topic of urgent public attention on October 4, 1957 when a tiny Soviet satellite chirped alarming evidence of technological superiority. Then in 1961, a young cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin leant his human face to a new extraterrestrial space era that threatened to leave the U.S. behind. America immediately upped the ante. Within only 11 years after that we safely delivered 12 of our citizens to the lunar surface and back, along with 6 orbital companions.

Dramatic erosion of public interest began soon after presidential and congressional politics turned the Apollo space program into a jobs program. The sad truth is that while most of us take great pride in the amazing things NASA has accomplished, we are now pretty much clueless about where the space program is going. I happen to hang out with lots of aerospace folks, and they don’t really know either. In short, everyone is waiting for a sign from “on high”.

In February 2010, President Obama announced a plan to make technology innovation and commercial space travel the centerpiece of his space strategy. He proposed to cancel NASA’s programs to build government-designed rockets, leaving that role to the private sector. Obama attempted to cancel the government-designed Ares 1 and Ares V super-heavy-lift rocket programs. However, Congress, responding to pressure from affected states such as Florida and Alabama, didn’t go along with killing Ares V, and it was then reestablished as the “Space Launch System” (SLS). Meanwhile, our venerable Space Shuttles have been relegated to the ignoble status of tourist attractions, and our astronauts hitch rides on Russian rockets.

Fortunately, they may not need to much longer. There are some home-grown commercial companies that may soon provide those services, and do so at much lower costs. If so, NASA can turn its full attention to doing things that they are very good at…like planning future robotic and human planetary exploration missions, and developing next-generation propulsion and other technologies that are essential to enable them.

Read more: Can Commercial Space Rescue NASA From Deadly Public Indifference? – Forbes.

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