Space program ends today

The American flag. On November 6, 2012, make sure that flag still means something.
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Shuttle Atlantis landed safely this morning. With that event, the US space program ended. No one knows when or whether it will start again.

Where does the USA stand in space?

Shuttle Atlantis during a more glorious time in the US space program

View of Earth, looking down on Shuttle Atlantis from the Russian Mir space station. Atlantis became famous for docking with a Russian space station for the first time. Photo: NASA-Goddard Photo and Video, CC BY 2.0.

Atlantis, last of the space shuttles, landed this morning at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its four-man crew took a slightly greater risk, because no other shuttle could have rescued them if anything had gone wrong. Thankfully, nothing did.

Two American astronauts are still in space. Astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum are part of International Space Station Expedition 28. This six-member crew includes three Russians (including the current station commandant) and a Japanese.

Atlantis delivered food and supplies to last a year. After that, the Russian space agency (RKK Energia), the European Space Agency, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will have to resupply the station.

Does the United States have any space program?

The United States cannot send people into space anymore. Americans must now hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to get up to, or down from, the space station.

The US Air Force Space Command can send smaller satellites into orbit. But the United States has no heavy-lifting rocket to carry the heavy loads that a real space program needs. NASA had a heavy-lift rocket ship under development, one using shuttle-like boosters. But Barack H. Obama, the man how holding office as President, canceled that.

Why did he cancel it?

Why Obama canceled the Constellation development program is anyone’s guess. Since midway through Project Apollo, more and more politicians have complained that sending humans into space “doesn’t affect the Earth we’re living on.” They have wanted to use the money spent on the space program (not that much, actually) for earth-bound projects and wealth-transfer programs.

Obama is in the same mold. But even the Soviet Union, the grandest wealth-transfer and public-works experiment of all time, had a space program. The Russian Federation inherited that. And now half the crew of the space station is Russian, and a Russian commands it.

What next for Americans in space?

The government has not yet decided. NASA has always had private contractors to build spacecraft that NASA would launch and run. Now some of these contractors, plus some new companies, will design, build and run their own rocket ships and other spacecraft. Virgin Galactic, the “space touring” company, has already tested a spacecraft that carries six passengers and two pilots.

These “space taxi” services could resupply the space station as soon as 2013. And they could, in theory, develop a ship powerful enough to put a payload, or a crew, into orbit.

But will the government allow it? Since World War II, the only space programs have been government programs. The American program was the most successful—and was a public-private partnership. Even that might be too expensive for a government that is broke and in heavy debt.

Any all-private space program can only get off the ground if the government waives, or scraps, dozens of regulations. Regulators held up the Terrafugia Transition, the world’s first practical road-legal plane, for two years. The best thing that the United States government can do, if America will have any space program at all, is to get out of the way. Then private companies can develop and run a space program that can serve all the practical needs that anyone could imagine.

Featured image: the United States flag.