NASA’s final space shuttle mission ended July 2011, to the sadness of countless nerds, science enthusiasts and people who simply believe in exploring the universe to better understand the mysteries of life. (I fall into the “nerd” category.) But why was this a big deal?
Mostly, I think, because of some misconceptions. The end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA. NASA continues to do important work in everything from air traffic controller design to commercial aircraft fuel efficiency. This also doesn’t mean the end of NASA space missions. NASA recently put the robotic rover Curiosity on Mars to continue exploration of the planet after the previous two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, ended their 7-year tenure on the planet two years ago. Finally, and most surprising to me, the end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA putting humans in space. The organization is currently building the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle designed to do just that, and the International Space Station will continue to have U.S. astronauts working there year-round.
What, then, does the end of the space shuttle program mean? Well, just that the space shuttle orbiters — those things that look like blocky, vertical airplanes — are being retired (just as had been scheduled from the very beginning of the program). They’re just being replaced by newer spacecraft. That’s all.
But the end of this program comes at the time of another change: the shift of space exploration away from government and into the private sector. For example, so-called reduced-gravity aircraft (planes that fly through parabolic trajectories, giving the passengers the sensation of weightlessness) have traditionally been operated solely by NASA. Remember Tom Hanks floating around in “Apollo 13”? That was NASA. (As a side note, the Yale Drop Team is a club that has performed zero-gravity science experiments on such planes as part of a NASA initiative.) But in 2004, the Zero Gravity Corporation began running these same flights as part of what they call the “extreme tourism” industry.
And private companies are going beyond the atmosphere too. Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, created SpaceX, the company that put the first privately built liquid-fuel rocket into orbit and later attached the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station. Musk now sits on the board of the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to incentivizing scientific developments with multi-million dollar prizes, alongside people like Google’s Larry Page, Segway inventor Dean Kaman, Arianna Huffington and James Cameron. Though the organization gives out awards for things like high-fuel-efficiency cars, it in particular has done a lot to promote advancements in space exploration; $2 million in prize money was given out for Earth-based testing of lunar landing devices, $10 million was awarded to the first private manned spacecraft to enter space twice in two weeks and $30 million is offered to the first team to land a lunar rover that can perform certain tasks.
Even outside the X Prize Foundation, similar incentive prizes have sprung up. A hotel entrepreneur offered $50 million for two manned spaceflights to an inflatable space station. (The prize expired two years ago when no one had accomplished the feat, making the $30 million X Prize not quite “the largest incentive prize of all time,” as it claims on its website.) NASA-sponsored prizes for building components of a “space elevator” — which is exactly what it sounds like — such as super-strong ultralight tether cables. My personal favorite is the N-Prize, which, according to its website is “a challenge to launch an impossibly small satellite into orbit on a ludicrously small budget, for a pitifully small cash prize.” Need clarification? Impossibly small = 9.99 to 19.99 grams (less than a twentieth of a pound). Ludicrously small budget = £999.99. Pitifully small cash prize = £9,999.99. (The only other questions in the website FAQ are, “Are we serious? Yes.” and, “Surely it’s impossible? Very nearly.”)
But it’s near-impossible goals like these that have the opportunity to shape the path of humanity. If global warming continues along its current path, having companies capable of putting some humans in space might not be such a bad idea. Allowing amateurs to put satellites into orbit for a few thousand dollars would dramatically change outer space from one controlled by governments and, increasingly, corporations, to one belonging to ordinary citizens too. And the more competition and innovation in this area, the better. We are earthlings, yes, but as far as we know we’re also the only intelligent life in the universe, and the universe is always ready to be explored.