On Tuesday, Sept. 16, NASA administrator, Gen. Charlie Bolden, announced the selection of Boeing and SpaceX to be the first American companies to launch our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Simply stated, when NASA shut down the shuttle program, it was no longer the best way for our country to invest taxpayer dollars to get cargo or humans to the ISS. The shuttle program was started in the early 1970s. It stopped flying 1980s technology in 2010. Remember “Cash for Clunkers”? Well, Congress took the cash it was paying NASA to keep the shuttle running and invested in private industry to bring the most aggressive, technically advanced teams into developing the next transportation systems to take U.S. astronauts to the ISS. The shuttle was far from a clunker, but it was too expensive to operate given shrinking budgets.
Technically advanced teams creating human launch systems are growing in the United States and across the globe, specifically in China and Russia, countries not exactly our best friends. I have written before about the great difference in capability between cargo and crew space transportation. It’s OK for my socks and shoes to travel in my luggage in the cargo hold of a plane, but it’s not a safe place for your infant granddaughter.
Cargo transportation to ISS includes things like food and clothing. No life support systems are necessary on the cargo ships. Cargo transportation to ISS is being provided by Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX on the American side. The Europeans and Japanese also have cargo ships supplying ISS. Launch America is NASA’s program designed to re-energize the launch capability of American companies to put American spacecraft and humans in space.
When I speak to my fellow Las Crucens about the space program, it is important to make the connection to what we get from investments in the space program, either at the national or local level. The NASA manager for Commercial Crew is Kathy Lueders, a graduate of New Mexico State University. The vice president and program manager at The Boeing Company for Commercial Programs is John Mulholland, a graduate of New Mexico State University.
Both John and Kathy are graduates of the College of Engineering, and will be speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here in October. Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Spaceflight, Exploration and Operations, the man at NASA headquarters who is in charge of this program, will also be speaking at ISPCS next month.
Charlie, as the NASA administrator likes to be called, further stated that NASA has set the stage for what promises to be the most exciting chapter in the history of human spaceflight.
For the average consumer of news, this story is not big news. How come? Democracy, free press and open markets all co-exist, but there is not a direct relationship with democracy and valuable information provided by a free press. The nuggets of valuable information in the news depend on the reader’s point of view. As long as our space program is going well, the news-hungry public will ignore us. The headlines focus on ISIL, elections, Ebola, and other hot topics. NASA does not want to be a hot topic. While Charlie knows this is exciting, the American public is addicted to excitement that is, well, let’s just agree it is not on a daily diet of the space program.
Launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017 may not be news, but it is important in terms of our country’s technological development challenges and security. Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry is the way we will develop the space transportation industry. You are in the same country that first developed the ground, rail and air transportation industries. No other country in the history of mankind can make that claim. The next transportation industry to develop will be commercial space transportation. Spaceport America will help fast-forward the human space transportation industry once Virgin Galactic begins routine commercial operations.
The recent award made to Boeing and SpaceX totaled $6.8 billion and will be paid over a period, hopefully, of three years. The companies have proposed under a fixed-price contract to build the vehicles and provide services to the government. The costs beyond government funds will be borne by the companies. This is good for America.