In commentary for moonandback, Jason Rhian suggests that NASA is facing a mass exodus of its astronauts seeking greener pastures in the private sector. (See NASA Faces Potential Shortage Of Astronauts.)

He cites astronaut Garrett Reisman’s recent move to SpaceX. (There he joins fellow ex-NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox in standing up SpaceX’s manned space flight program.)

Stands to reason. NASA’s Space Shuttles are set to retire this year, and there is no national spaceship to replace them. In the near term, NASA’s astronauts face the ignoble prospect of riding Russian Soyuz spaceships to the International Space Station. But longer term, American companies are building America’s next generation of spaceships, which will fly NASA astronauts on a per-flight basis. SpaceX is ahead of the pack, but others will follow.

The days of US government-owned space ships will end this year. Sure, there’s another national spaceship, called Orion, on the drawing boards. But after more than $4 billion spent on it ($10 billion if you count its aborted Ares launcher), it has yet to fly, and its status is in political limbo. Contrast that with the SpaceX Dragon, which last December became the first commercial spacecraft to make a soft landing from orbit. That ship is set to begin delivering cargo to the International Space Station this year, and could begin flying astronauts in a couple of years. It has so far cost well under $1 billion for development and test flights (including its Falcon 9 launcher).

Of necessity, NASA is in the process of moving toward a model of paying for services and data, rather than maintaining and operating its own spaceships. That means contractor astronauts will increasingly work with government employee astronauts, and the line will become increasingly blurred. Very likely Reisman, Bowersox, and the other astros moving into the private sector will still visit Space Station, but they will collect checks from their private sector employers rather than the government.. I can also foresee a day in the not-to-distant future when NASA will act as supplier to the private sector as well as customer, for instance hiring out its astronaut training facilities to private companies.

It’s all to the good, creating more opportunities for astronauts, researchers, and explorers, both public and private. With the end of the government monopoly on space travel will come an explosion of innovation as companies compete to provide more affordable and more frequent access to space.