Tomorrow morning (AEST), weather depending, the Space Shuttle Atlantis will blast off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, marking the end of NASA’s 30-year-old Space Transportation System. But as the curtain closes on an era of manned space flight – with thousands of estimated job losses – what’s next for NASA? What will space flight look like in a post-Shuttle era?
Well, we could do worse than to look to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In between the mind-bending visual effects and the classical music, this cinematic classic includes some beautiful and intriguing images of a possible future for human space flight.
Early in the film we follow an American scientist into Earth orbit and then to the moon, to investigate the finding of an alien artefact. He travels to an orbiting space station on a commercial spaceliner (Pan American, no less), in much the same way we might fly across the Pacific with Qantas today.
Once he arrives at the station, which is spinning very slowly to create an artificial gravity, he goes to the Hilton – Space Station, next door to the Howard Johnson Space Hotel.
So at this stage in our “future” (the year 2001 in the movie), travel to Earth orbit is a completely commercial affair.
In 2011, and in real life, NASA is taking the first steps towards something like this.
In 2009, the Obama administration commissioned the Augustine Report to map out possible scenarios for the United States’s future in space. There were many issues to deal with:
- The space shuttles were reaching the end of their operational life.
- The new system for transporting both astronauts and cargo to low Earth orbit was well behind schedule.
- The exploration program put in place by the Bush administration to go back to the moon as a precursor to manned flights to Mars had not been properly budgeted for.
The Augustine Committee that authored this report (chaired by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin) delved into these issues in a very forthright and open-minded way.
The essence of their finding was that NASA’s future exploration plan was both scientifically meaningful and inspiring, but that it was severely underfunded.
If the US wanted NASA to conduct such a program, then a major increase in funding was required over a period of at least two decades. Without this extra funding, the program was considered dysfunctional and doomed to failure.
With the US economy reeling from the global financial crisis, there were only two possible responses the Obama administration could have:
1) Cancel the ambitious exploration program and significantly curtail NASA’s activities. 2) Find a more efficient way to continue to explore space.
While it’s still not completely clear exactly what the future US space program will be, some tentative first steps towards reducing the cost of space exploration have been made.
This has involved embracing, for the first time, the emergence of commercial carriers for lifting both cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit.
In the 1920s the US Government stimulated the growth of the commercial airline industry by awarding a series of guaranteed contracts for carrying airmail.
It was suggested in the Augustine Report that NASA could do a similar thing for a range of space-related activities, such as taking cargo to the International Space Station, or lifting fuel to low Earth orbit for use in deep space missions.
They also raised the possibility that astronauts could be taken to the International Space Station by commercial carriers.
The inherent assumption behind this suggestion is that competition between emerging companies would drive the cost of getting to low Earth orbit significantly lower than it is today.
One great benefit of this approach is that it would also allow NASA to concentrate on the more challenging role of exploring space well beyond low Earth orbit, a role much more suited to a government agency.
Giving up the capability to get to low Earth orbit might be the hardest thing that NASA could do. But it could be the only thing that will allow NASA and the US Space Program to thrive well into the future.
Maybe then you and I could fly to orbit with Qantas in, say, 2031?
What would you like to see NASA do next? Leave your thoughts below.
Michael Smart is the professor of Hypersonic Aerodynamics at University of Queensland.