The final Space Shuttle launch is scheduled for July 8, 2011. This upcoming event is a bittersweet moment for me and, I suspect, for many other people. I spent many years working in aerospace on projects that included supporting the Space Shuttle Main Engines as well as a payload that was cancelled for political (rather than technical) reasons after two years of pre-launch effort.
Similar to the tip of an iceberg, the Space Shuttle is just the front face of the launch and mission infrastructure that was the Space Shuttle program. Like many embedded systems that are contained within end systems, there is a huge amount of ground equipment and technical teams that work behind the scenes to make the Space Shuttle a successful endeavor. So one question is – what is the future of that infrastructure once the Space Shuttle program is completely closed down?
While the United States space program has been a largely publicly funded effort for many decades, the door is now opening for private entities to step up and take the stage. I am hopeful this type of shift will enable a resurgence in the space program because more ideas will be able to compete on how to best deliver space-based services rather than relying on a central group driving the vast majority of the direction that the space program could go. The flurry of aerospace activity and innovation that the Orteig Prize spawned demonstrated that private groups of individuals can accomplish Herculean feats – in this case, flying non-stop across the Pacific Ocean, in either direction, between New York and Paris.
However, I am not sure that a public prize is necessary to spawn a resurgence in aerospace innovation. There are a number of private space ventures already underway, including Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, as well as those companies in the list of private spaceflight companies on Wikipedia.
Does the end of the Space Shuttle program as it has been for the past few decades mean the space program will change? If so, how will it change – especially the hidden (or embedded) infrastructure? Is space just an academic exercise or are there any private/commercial ventures that you think will crack open the potential of space services that become self-sustaining in a private world?