The next big step for spaceflight

The big event of the day was obviously the final launch of space shuttle Atlantis, the last launch ever for NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program.

It’s been 135 missions, 355 astronauts, and half a billion miles since the first launch of the Columbia back in 1981. In 12 day’s time, Atlantis will be back from the International Space Station and be put on permanent display at locations around the country along with the two other remaining shuttles.

I was trying to learn a bit about the situation surrounding the program’s retirement, but as Wikipedia would have it, I ended up spending the afternoon reading all about American history, aerospace engineering, and military conspiracies.

Anyhow, I’m certainly proud of NASA’s missions over the past 3 decades. It’s been a worthy program, and it’s a perfect time to let it go.

In the political sphere, you have one side that’s hounding for budget cuts and calling space explo a waste. And then you have the other side that’s trying to argue for the pursuit of science and its importance for the US to continue as a world leader.

I have no regret for the ginormous amounts of spending for the program over the past decades. It has captured the aspirations for generations of Americans and proved to be a gigantic step for the identity of mankind.

But, I’m not the sort who will be feeling sad and sorry that the space shuttles are no more. Why? All things run their course, and it’s time for the next step for humans in space.

The next step for NASA is to move into deeper space exploration, and that means NASA will need to stop sending things into the sky for the time being. It also seems to be what has many people crying: the apparent step backwards in the pursuit for humans in space.

But worry not! What’s next for the entire industry of human spaceflight is actually really exciting. Now that the US government has spearheaded (along with some healthy competition initially from the Soviets) the pursuit of putting humans in space, it’s time to leave it up to companies. NASA has made space travel feasible, entrepreneurs can make it better.

Once the private space travel industry grows, operations will become more efficient and cost-effective than what a government initiative can sustain. NASA is already starting to contract private space transport companies such as SpaceX to do future supply runs for the ISS. And in the budget-cutting climate of today, there’s really no reason to put the burden on taxpayers when private companies can do it better for less.

Eventually, competition in the privatized market for space travel and transport will make spaceflight technology far more reliable and affordable, affordable perhaps even to mere mortals. Because really, what’s the fun of watching a space shuttle launch when you can visit space yourself?

Everything leads to everything else.