As the last flight of NASA’s space shuttle began with a photogenic launch this morning, the future of manned space flight is far from certain. From the first shuttle mission — designated STS-1 — in April 1981, when astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen flew the Columbia, through today’s launch of Atlantis for STS-135, the shuttle program has been the focus of much of the praise and criticism in public analysis of America’s space program. Now, as Atlantis begins its twelve-day mission, the debate about the future of human space flight centers on the role of public and private involvement in such endeavors.

As the Space Shuttle Endeavour began its final mission on May 16, the future of NASA’s human space program remains uncertain. The space shuttle program is steadily approaching its end, but the readiness of the space agency to move forward in a post-shuttle era remains to be seen.

Private industry is making progress toward lowering the cost of space flight, and NASA would like to come along for the ride.

Among the earliest actions of the Obama administration was the appointment of the “Augustine Committee,” which was given the responsibility of carrying out a review of NASA’s manned space program. The result of the committee deliberations was a NASA with its budget intact, but without a mission or mandate to go anywhere. The previous administration’s plans for a return to the Moon and eventual missions to Mars were abandoned — few presidential administrations are interested in implementing the showpiece programs of their predecessors.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant milestones in the “Space Race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it comes at a time when Russia once again hopes to sprint head of any rival space program.

An American company is planning to build the largest rockets since the days of NASA’s Apollo program, and promises to deliver payloads to orbit for a tenth the cost of the space shuttles of the U.S.’s troubled space agency. SpaceX has already successfully launch a smaller vehicle called the Falcon 9 on several occasions, but now the company has announced plans for a bold, new step in the development of private space flight.

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