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Inside Story Americas
Are US space missions running out of steam?
We ask if critics are right to say that commercial space enterprises have left the US lagging behind in the space race.
Last Modified: 01 Jun 2012 08:55

A new chapter was opened last week when the Dragon space capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit, becoming the first privately-bankrolled space cargo vehicle.

Less than a year ago, the space shuttle Atlantis took off for its final voyage from Cape Canaveral, ending the US shuttle programme under NASA, the country's space agency. It marked the end of an era of space missions and exploration.

On Thursday, the SpaceX mission was completed when the Dragon capsule fell safely back to earth, making it the only existing supply ship designed to be reusable. The others burn up on re-entering the earth's atmosphere.

"NASA should go and do what it does best which is to explore the universe, go where no one has gone before. It can't really do that if it's running a trucking company up and down to low-earth orbit…so why not hand a bit of that hard labour off to private sector and let NASA go and explore for the sake of science and eventually perhaps even settlement in the solar system."

- Dave Brody, a science and technology writer for Space.com

SpaceX, the company behind it, says this is just the beginning and hopes to ferry US astronauts to the space station, and eventually launch missions to Mars.

Shortly after Dragon's landing, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, talked about his plans for the future:

"For the remainder of this year, we are competing to upgrade Dragon to carry astronauts so that's an ongoing competition…it would carry astronauts and land on land. It will have the ability to land propulsively with the accuracy of a helicopter so it's a significant technology upgrade as well…we'll also be doing our first operational re-supply mission [soon]".

Barack Obama, the US president, oversaw the end of the country's shuttle programme in 2010, saying commercial input would allow NASA to concentrate on further exploration.

This is what he said at the Kennedy Space Centre while backing private space flights:

"The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead.

"Relatively soon some people will be able to pay to go into space, in fact some already have on the Russian Soyuz vehicle. The question is how much can the price come down…there are also companies trying to build services to go to sub-orbital space…which would be possible in a couple of years."

- Alex Saltman, from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation

"By buying the services of space transportation, rather than the vehicles themselves, we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies, from young startups to established leaders, compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere."

But the idea has been criticised, with some saying that the move to commercial space enterprises has left the US lagging behind in the space race.

Inside Story Americas asks: What does the future hold for US space missions?

Joining presenter Anand Naidoo to discuss this are guests: John Logsdon, an expert on the policy and historical aspects of space from George Washington University; Alex Saltman, from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation; and Dave Brody, a science and technology writer for Space.com.

 "[We should not] over-dramatise this. This is a cargo-carrying service to an orbiting research laboratory. The real point is the research being done up on that space station…a way of getting supplies and experiments up and bringing results back. It's basically just a trucking service not exploration."

John Logsdon, an expert on the policy and historical aspects of space


PRIVATE SPACE COMPANIES:

  • SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, a co-founder of the online payment service, PayPal. It plans to test its next rocket, the Falcon Heavy, by the end of this year.
  • Orbital Sciences Corporation is working on a rocket to deliver cargo to the space station and perform commercial satellite launches. It is also working on single-use cargo craft.
  • Blue Origin is another company founded with tech-money. It was created by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. The company is working on a fully reusable spacecraft called The New Shepherd.
  • The Sierra Nevada Corporation was founded in the 1960s as an aerospace electronics firm. It creating a shuttle-like glider craft called Dream Chaser, designed to carry from two to seven astronauts.
  • Boeing is also in the game, working on a crew capsule that could ferry up to seven people to and from the space station or other destinations in low-earth orbit.

NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION (NASA) TIMELINE:

  • July 29, 1958 – NASA was established
  • 1960s – started operating manned space flights
  • July 1969 – first astronauts on the moon
  • 1961 – the then US President John Kennedy set a deadline for a moon landing
  • December 1972 – the last moon landing took place
  • April 12, 1981 – the first space shuttle flight took place
  • January 28, 1986 – the space shuttle Challenger exploded
  • 1998 – the first segment of the International Space Station was launched
  • February 1, 2003 – the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry
  • July 8, 2011 – the last space shuttle flight was launched

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