With Elon Musk’s announcement this week that his company, SpaceX, is developing the world’s most powerful rocket, a little-acknowledged fact has become all the more clear: SpaceX IS the US manned space program.
Yes, naysayers like Senator Shelby of Alabama and even Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong like to say that private companies can never take over the government’s role in sending people to orbit and beyond. But that doesn’t change the facts.
Fact: NASA’s manned space program has been spinning its wheels, flying in circles around planet Earth since it abandoned the moon in 1972. How many more decades in orbit do we need to research the effects of microgravity on human physiology, anyway?
Fact: Not for lack of trying and dollars spent, NASA has not been able to field a new manned spacecraft since the Space Shuttle first launched in 1982.
Fact: The US government’s manned space program has been critically wounded by politicians whose only mission is to keep dollars flowing into their districts as well as by bureaucrats whose main mission is to ensure that the way the agency has done things in the past is the only way it will continue to do things.
Fact: SpaceX is the only US entity with the magic combination of vision, financial backing, and expertise to build America’s next-generation of manned orbital spacecraft.
Fact: With the Falcon Heavy announcement, SpaceX has affirmed its commitment to finally push humans past low Earth orbit again. Two successful orbital launches of its Falcon 9 rocket say that its chances of success are good.
What happens next? The Shuttle retires this year. NASA charters flights on the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (powered by the Falcon 9 rocket) to send its astronauts to the International Space Station.
Space Station falls down by 2020, and no new one is built, leaving no manned space assets owned by the US government. Not only will NASA not be able to focus on a new mission long enough with sufficient funding to replace Shuttle and Space Station, it won’t need to. It will be able to continue to charter flights on Falcon/Dragon and lease space aboard Bigelow Aerospace space stations that are also now under development.
Meanwhile, private ventures, powered by SpaceX rockets and their eventual competitors, will push beyond low Earth orbit and continue the adventure where the Apollo moon astronauts left off. NASA researchers will continue to do what the agency has historically done best: develop the new technologies and collect the data needed to understand and explore the universe.
The US space program as we know will soon be dead. But that will only help humankind establish a sustainable and expanding presence in space.