2011: The End of NASA's Space Odyssey?

Just before 6 a.m. on July 21, the Atlantis space shuttle rolled to a stop at Cape Canaveral, Fla., placing a final bookend on the United States' shuttle program. A permanent marker will soon grace the Kennedy Space Center’s runway to honor the 135th (and last) mission’s final resting spot.

The program’s denouement raises a maelstrom of questions about the future of American space exploration: What role will the National Aeronautics and Space Administration play from now on, and how much government funding should it receive? Does space exploration still represent a significant national interest in a post-Cold War era, or should its purview be transferred wholly to the private sector?

In 2008, NASA awarded California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Virginia’s Orbital Sciences Corporation each a contract for International Space Station (ISS) resupply missions. The announcement signaled a move towards the privatization of space, as it was NASA’s first decision not to handle the chore itself or default to mega-corps such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing. So far, the results of this move have been auspicious: SpaceX’s recently-announced Falcon Heavy (with a planned launch date of early 2013) will carry payloads of up to 117,000 pounds — twice that of NASA’s space shuttles – and at a cheaper cost per mission.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has set forth lofty goals for his company, including possible future manned missions to Mars. With no mention of the supposed Space Race with China, Musk cites the “notion of curiosity [and] quality of imagination” as the company’s tenets.

The American investment in space exploration has endured, despite having shifted significantly in motivation since NASA’s inception: What began as a national defense enterprise has morphed into a sense of urgency towards keeping the United States at the forefront of the global technology sector. The U.S.-China Space Race has taken on a different tone than that of the Cold War, with fear of military action taking a backseat to the struggle for superpower status.

However, just as NASA’s triumphs do not justify its former monopoly on the space industry, the same caveat must be given with any exaltation of private industry’s advancements. NASA’s reign is hardly over; its main focus is simply now on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and its Mars Exploration Rover Mission. The Opportunity rover continues to provide valuable imaging and information about the planet’s environment, which companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences can utilize in planning future missions. The end of the space shuttle program ushers in a new age of NASA, with funding funneled into unmanned missions, robotics and analysis.

With the many functions of NASA in mind, analysts must consider specialization in any economic analysis of the space industry’s future. Criticism of NASA is currently due to its industry monopoly, but while the privatization of payload missions is economical, research must be conducted by separate organizations to maximize productivity. As long as a Space Race exists under nationalist premises, this research remains relevant to the government, and NASA should rightfully receive funding, just as bodies like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) do. In the wake of the shuttle program, NASA’s budget should not be cut — instead, its apportionment should simply reflect this new objective. The organization itself should resume focus on long-term research and intelligence, while funds previously earmarked for the shuttle program should be diverted towards contracts with private companies to ensure their adequate funding.

The privatization of the space industry will likely spur technological innovation through competition, but the manufacturing side of aerospace industry is merely one piece of the larger nexus necessary to realize the American dream of sending men to other planets. The age-old conflict between NASA and industry has returned, but this time with a solution made evident through experience: While industry takes the reigns on time-tested enterprises, NASA must push forward with original research to challenge and extend our existing boundaries.

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