The Space Shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth this week from its final flight. That pretty much puts NASA out of the business of launching humans into space anytime soon. On one hand that’s sad, the end of a grand program and many space workers will lose their jobs. On the other hand, its the right move at the right time that may result in more American space travelers than ever as America’s next space race blasts off.
“I’m convinced in the next few years we’re going to see multiple companies flying several times a week,” says George Nield, head of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration reports NPR.com. “And that will mean hundreds of launches every year, with thousands of people getting to experience space flight firsthand.”
Indeed, several companies are offering trips that will give people a few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space. Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic and XCOR are all taking deposits. Other companies are planning to make spacecraft that can take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
The Space Shuttle program did it’s job. Hauling huge payloads of equipment, parts and supplies into space to build the International Space Station and more. Now it is time to turn the page on the next chapter of space exploration and some believe a whole new space race will be the result.
“The new American space race has begun” says Richard Garriott who paid a reported $30 million to ride a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2008, “This new race promises to create safer, cheaper spaceships that will explore farther, sooner. More importantly, in addition to exploration and fundamental research, this new era will return economic value from space resources like energy and minerals and microgravity research in fields such as biology.”
Garriott agrees that privately funded space travel will be the new frontier for NASA but notes the big difference is in how NASA will go about it’s business.
“NASA has always owned the vehicles that its astronauts rode into space” says Garriott in an article on Statesman.com, “What is changing is merely this procurement method. Instead of buying a vehicle, NASA is buying rides, just like it does for satellites.“
Flickr photo by Undertow851