U.S. human spaceflight dead? Hardly!

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Published on: April 29, 2012

Once again a space shuttle orbiter was on the move this past week as Enterprise was flown to New York City, and thousands of people waved, cheered and generally went crazy with excitement. And – like they did when Discovery was flown to the nation’s capital – news reporters, columnists, bloggers and tweeters bemoaned the end of our space program that this ferry flight supposedly symbolized.

A typical example of the kinds of things being said could be found in a New York Daily News column, which started off celebrating with great fanfare the arrival of Enterprise and the significant contributions of our entire Space Shuttle program. But then, it seems inevitably, the picture turned dark.

Here’s the part that raised my blood pressure:

“Even when they came to seem routine, each mission was a great feat. So much wonder. No wonder kids dreamed of suiting up in bright orange jumpsuits, complete with NASA patch — a dream that, sad truth be told, is likely to fade as the government shelves its manned space flight program. No more trips to the moon or on to Mars, not for generations. Now the work will be done by private risk takers and entrepreneurs.”

OK, let’s break down those last three points.

First, when did we shelve our manned space flight program? Yes, we have shut down the Space Shuttle program without a ready replacement vehicle, a fact that grates on me and just screams how short-sighted our leaders in Washington and much of the American public have become. But our astronauts are still flying in space.

Now that I think about it, in all the coverage of the ferry flights for Discovery and Enterprise that I saw or read, I can’t remember one instance in which someone, reporter or blogger, mentioned that we still have astronauts living and working aboard the International Space Station.

Don Petit is up there right now, along with a Dutch astronaut and Russian cosmonaut. Dan Burbank came home Friday morning after spending six months on the space station, returning in a Soyuz spacecraft and safely landing in Kazakhstan along with two Russians. The next crew of three is set to launch to the station in May. Even more astronauts are in training in Houston.

Our manned space program is not idle.

Second, what’s the deal about no more trips to the Moon or Mars? Were we making trips to the Moon or Mars lately that I somehow missed? Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common belief among the uneducated masses that the Space Shuttle routinely flew to the Moon. I’ve personally come across that belief way too often in my career.

So now we have a big city columnist reinforcing that misconception, and telling us that NASA has halted all these flights it was making, and won’t be resuming them for generations. Generations? How long is that? Doesn’t generations imply a few hundred years.

Setting aside for a moment the argument that our national human spaceflight goals may or may not be as clear as mud, and given current funding levels may be about as achievable as the Minnesota Vikings chances of making it to the Super Bowl this year – although we did have a pretty decent draft this week – whatever is going to happen in the future is NOT going to take generations.

The company line at NASA, at least with the current administration, is that our astronauts are heading for asteroids by 2025 and Mars a decade later. All very exciting but that puts me in my 70s by the time we land on the Red Planet, and while I don’t want to wait that long, the timeframe is hardly generations.

Finally, the Daily News says all this spaceflight work will be done by private risk takers and entrepreneurs. Well, at least there is some truth to that statement. I mean, I do know a few astronauts that are very private individuals. But that’s probably not what the writer meant.

Yes, absolutely, our space program and the future of human spaceflight is going to rely more and more on a commercial space industry to get our astronauts into and out of low Earth orbit, and I think that’s the way it should be, and that future is looking more and more real every day.

In just eight days, on May 7th, SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Riding on top will be the company’s Dragon spacecraft, an unmanned cargo carrier that will be flown to the International Space Station and possibly berthed there. If all goes well, remembering this is a test flight, the achievement will mark a first for the new commercial way of doing things.

I’m looking forward to Dragon’s success, hopefully on this flight but certainly within the near future, because that is going to open the doors even wider to more commercial space ventures into Earth orbit and perhaps beyond.

One of those includes the idea of mining asteroids for water and precious metals, which a company called Planetary Services announced this week its plans to do. This is something I am really excited about because it’s a great idea that will lead to many more good things for our push toward the stars, and while it may take a few years, I can’t wait to see all the naysayers and late night comedians eat their words over this idea.

So once again our space program is a topic of national conversation. And once again the message is getting fumbled by those reporting it. Human spaceflight, indeed our entire space program, has not shut down. We certainly do have some obstacles to overcome, no one can deny that. But the picture isn’t as dark as so many keep wanting to paint it.

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