This Friday will mark the last ever space shuttle mission in NASA’s program. The program has lasted nearly half a century and seen the launch of over 135 missions (including this last one by the Atlantis). For those who can remember being glued to the television as the Discovery, Endeavour, challenger and Columbia blasted out the Kennedy Space Center, this may be a bittersweet moment. However, the tearful can take comfort in the thought that they are waving goodbye to another landmark: the government’s fifty-year monopoly in the space industry.
For many, space exploration has represented the pinnacle of what a government can accomplish and has even served as a justification for state initiative. While the early days of the space race did have an element of competition – between the two rival states of the United states and the Soviet Union – at present the entire industry serves as a testament to the lack of innovation that accompanies the absence of that competition. The shuttles themselves, once a symbol of American innovation and creativity, were meant to revolutionize human space travel. However, each expedition costs well over a billion dollars to execute, making the dream of frequent launches simply too expensive to ever realize on the taxpayer dollar.
As the shuttles are shipped to museums, several men have been instrumental in the push to privatize the space race. Richard Branson, the famous English business magnate, has launched Virgin Galactic, which aims to offer the ‘space tourist’ experience – for a paltry $200,000, you can be shot into space on one of the newly crafted SpaceShipTwo and experience the feeling of weightlessness for a full four to six minutes. While the crafts currently only have the capacity for suborbital missions, Branson plans to eventually offer orbital flights. Another company known as SpaceX, founded by PayPal creator Elon Musk, focuses less on human cargo and more on actual cargo, specifically transporting materials such as parts and food supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX was the first company to receive a license from the FAA – which oversees airspace over the US – for its capsule to reenter from space. This liberalization of regulation was instrumental in allowing SpaceX to test its initial technology and will hopefully open the door for other companies to follow suit.
The end of the space shuttle program doesn’t mean the end of NASA or the government’s involvement in space. Rather, Obama framed the retirement of the shuttles as a way to shift precious funds towards other more innovative projects such as manned trips to Mars or even to an Asteroid. However, given the efficiency of private markets compared to government monopolies, the tourists on Virgin spacecrafts may reach Mars well before the NASA astronauts do.