Monday, April 27, 2009

Lost in space, rescued by private enterprise

Op Ed by David Kerr
Fredricksburg, Virginia
The Free Lance Star

DURING the first decade of the 21st century there has been a quiet revolution taking place in America's space program. It began in 2004 when Scaled Composites Inc. launched the first-ever privately funded craft to take a human into space.

Before then the business of putting astronauts into space was the exclusive domain of large government organizations. "SpaceShip-One," as this first privately funded manned space venture was called, changed all that.

With surprising ease the private sector has gone from this first flight to the edge of establishing a serious and long-term presence in space. With a flexible and innovative approach to design, the private sector--which now includes several space companies--has managed to develop several new and efficient classes of delivery systems. These are rockets that are strong enough to reach orbit and big enough to carry substantial payloads.

However, space entrepreneurs aren't just building rockets. They are designing and building vehicles that, though intended in the early stages to carry cargo, could rapidly be modified to carry astronauts. With government-built space-delivery systems and vehicles, developments like this normally take far longer.

In 2010, the U.S. will face a crisis in its space-flight program. The shuttle, which first carried a crew into orbit in 1981, is coming to an end. There is nothing waiting to take its place. America has no large-scale delivery systems ready to carry matériel and equipment, let alone humans, into orbit.

NASA is developing its Ares rockets and Orion cargo and crew vehicles, but even on an aggressive development schedule they won't be ready until 2015. Despite the fact that the U.S. funded and--for the most part--built the International Space Station, there will be no way for Americans to get there. Russians can come and go as they please, but the U.S., at least temporarily, is grounded--unless we want to catch a ride with the Russians.

In late 2008, in what can be considered a watershed event, NASA awarded two contracts for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services to supply the International Space Station: to Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and to Virginia's Orbital Sciences Corp. The arrangement calls for 20 delivery flights: These two private companies will provide up to 70 percent of America's equipment and supply requirements to the station. The rest will be carried aboard unmanned Russian cargo vehicles.

This represents a major evolution in the philosophical perspective of the space agency. Orbital Sciences Corp. will launch its resupply missions from several locations, including Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore. SpaceX will send its payloads into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX is developing a system to launch a vehicle--called the Dragon--that could easily be modified to carry astronauts, potentially as many as seven of them. The Dragon's maiden flight into orbital trajectory, which will be unmanned, is expected later this year. If the two companies are successful, NASA might be ready to let a private company not only carry cargo into space but carry astronauts as well.

The potential for reinvigorating our space program is immense. By turning delivery systems and orbital operations over to the private sector, NASA will have the opportunity to do what it excels at, and that is to explore space. This could be the beginning of an entirely new approach to manned space flight.

David Kerr of Stafford County works on Capitol Hill.

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