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Getting America back in the space race

Posted: June 3, 2011 9:39 a.m.
Updated: June 6, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Fifty years ago in April, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to be launched into space. Twenty-three days later, American Astronaut Alan Shepard became the second.

Not too many years later in the grand scheme of things, Americans became the first -- and only, so far -- humans to set foot on the Moon.

The space race was definitely on, soon marked by achievements such as the Russian space station Mir; America’s Skylab; probes, landers and orbiters to (especially) Mars, Venus and other places in our solar system; and the space shuttle program, which turned 30, also in April.

But the space shuttles are being grounded. Discovery’s already been mothballed, Endeavor just returned from its last mission, and Atlantis is about to launch for the last time ever.

And as NASA “celebrated” that 50/30 set of anniversaries, it ruffled some feathers as it announced where the last three shuttles, plus prototype Enterprise, will end up.

Atlantis will stay in Florida, a good move. Endeavor is going to the California Science Center in L.A. Discovery is going to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum annex in northern Virginia outside Washington, D.C. Enterprise -- wonderfully named back in the 1970s for Star Trek’s flagship -- will be housed at New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

Folks in Texas and Alabama got a little upset. Houston is, of course, home to mission control. Huntsville, Ala., is home to both the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center and Space Camp (at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center).

I can’t say I disagree. Those two cities have been virtually synonymous with the space shuttle program. I would have thought Enterprise would have gone to either city, likely Houston. Admittedly, it’s hard to ignore California (where space shuttles have landed) or the Air & Space Museum in D.C., considering what else is housed there. Not having a shuttle in Florida was out of the question.

The Obama administration reconfigured (critics say “nixed”) former President George W. Bush’s Constellation program that would have brought an Apollo-like system into service to get us back to the Moon. South Carolina’s Charles Bolden, NASA’s current administrator, said in an ABC News interview that “Constellation ... was a deep space exploration program that failed to get funding from the administration and Congress for many years ... it was a poor lunar exploration enterprise at best, because we didn’t have any landers.”

Since then, Bolden and President Barack Obama have announced a different replacement for the shuttles that would focus more on truly deep space exploration.

But that has left us without a way to get into orbit or to the International Space Station. At least, not by ourselves. For the moment, American astronauts are going to hitch rides with the Russians.

What NASA is working on is the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV -- based on the Orion spacecraft design as part of the Constellation program. The idea behind the MPCV program is to send astronauts first to an asteroid and then Mars.

It’s hoped we’ll fit the Moon back into the schedule, too. After all, it’s a lot closer and may even have water -- a lot of water -- according to some scientists. In any event, the MPCV is to get our astronauts beyond low earth orbit.

In the announcement, as I read it on CBSNews.com, Bolden said, “The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration.”

Private sector partners?

Wait a minute ... wasn’t the space race won by NASA with private corporations only manufacturing components? My first reaction was that this was space exploration blasphemy. Only governments can successfully muster the resources -- fiscal, human and technological -- to reach the stars.

But then I remembered “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Those of you old enough to have seen the film (or you youngsters who have been fortunate enough to download or otherwise view it) might now where I’m going with this.

Following the opening sequence in caveman times, the movie transitions to a shot of a Pan Am space plane approaching a space station where the main character, Heywood Floyd, will swap over to a “moonbus” to visit a U.S. moon base. I’d have to go back and either re-watch the movie or reread Arthur C. Clarke’s novel based on his and Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay, but I can’t remember if the space shuttle was a government facility or a private one. I’m pretty sure the space ship Discovery One, used in the movie to get to Jupiter, belongs to a U.S. NASA-type entity.

Looking back at other science fiction movies and novels -- including Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein’s -- many authors envisioned a future where private enterprise, not a government agency, got us into space.

2001 shows the very partnership Bolden was talking about: a private (although now in real life, defunct) company shuttling folks into orbit and the NASA, or something like it, taking us well beyond.

While I lament the utter neglect and lack of funding for NASA, which has given America so much, perhaps a little help from the private sector will get America back in the space race.

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