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Space Shuttle Program Winds Down as Era of Privatized Spacecraft Dawns

November 24, 2010 at 6:50 PM EDT
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As NASA's space shuttle program comes to an end after decades of service, private companies are looking to fill the void. Judy Woodruff looks at the future of space exploration with science correspondent Miles O'Brien.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: the end of one era in space travel and the beginning of another. Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The shuttle Discovery is set to blast off for the final time next month, bringing NASA’s shuttle program one step closer to an historic end.

Discovery is one of three remaining shuttles facing retirement by 2011. Meanwhile, private companies are stepping in to fill the gap. This week, the California-based company SpaceX was cleared by the government to launch into space a capsule that will fly into low orbit and reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

It will be the first-ever commercial spacecraft to be licensed for reentry. Founded by South African entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX has been a leader in the drive to develop commercial space travel. Its company’s Dragon capsule is scheduled to orbit the Earth four times next month, transmit data, receive commands, then reenter the atmosphere and splash into the Pacific Ocean.

If all goes as planned, it will deliver cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station.

And, for more on all this, joining us now, our science correspondent, Miles O’Brien. It’s good to have you with us.

MILES O’BRIEN: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, let’s talk background — the shuttle program going away. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s not around for long.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, it’s interesting. Here we are approaching 30 years of shuttle-flying, 130 some-odd flights. And all good things, I guess, come to an end.

Now, this decision really was made on the heels on the loss of Columbia. In 2004, then President Bush announced the slow retirement of the shuttle and the decision to move on to something else. At that time, the program was called Constellation, and the goal was return to the moon.

But things have changed with the Obama administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so nothing was planned from the government for NASA post the shuttle program?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, I mean, the sad part about it, I think everybody can agree, no matter which thing we do next in space, is that we are faced with this long gap.

The shuttles will go away, and we’re going to have this five-, six-, seven-, maybe longer year period where we will not have the capability here in the U.S. to fly American astronauts to space on our own. What we’re faced with — to get to the International Space Station, something we have invested $100 billion in for research, what we’re faced right now is the prospect of hiring Russian taxis.

A Russian Soyuz rocket will be carrying U.S. astronauts to the space station for the foreseeable future. And I think that’s unfortunate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which — and so we come to this commercial license, first of its kind, granted this week. Tell us who’s behind it and what the goal is here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, Elon Musk is a guy who — a South African originally — American now — lives in California, who made a pile of money with a company called PayPal. We all know that one.

He’s always been fascinated by space, and has gotten in this business, Space Exploration Technologies, SpaceX for short. He has a contract with NASA, a commercial contract, to build a rocket and a capsule that would deliver cargo and he hopes, ultimately, crews to the International Space Station, flying a dozen flights over the foreseeable future.

This license he got is unprecedented because it’s the first time that the FAA has granted a license for a capsule to reenter from space. You know, the FAA controls the airspace. And if this capsule is going to come down after this test flight December 7, the FAA has to say a few things about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, why did they give him a license? They must have confidence that he can pull this off.

MILES O’BRIEN: The FAA wants to encourage this, because this is part of a burgeoning new sector, they hope, where, one day, we might have instead — you know, 500 people have flown to space so far in the history of the space program.

The notion is that there will be 500 a month flying, or maybe even more than that, if the power of the entrepreneurial spirit is opened up.

And, so, SpaceX is just part of it. You’ve — a lot of people, of course, are familiar with Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. Right.

MILES O’BRIEN: … and the efforts there. And there are other players in this field that would really like to turn it into a for-real business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are there — are there disadvantages? Are their worries about turning it over to the private sector?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. In a word, it’s safety. This is dangerous business. We have lost two orbiters in the shuttle period. Let’s not forget that, 14 brave men and women who we have lost.

And so, when you talk about giving more latitude to the private sector to build these rockets, the question becomes, how will we know it is safe? And it’s important that NASA and the FAA are looking over the shoulder of these private players, making sure that they’re done in a way that is safe, but, then again, not being so much in their business that it’s so expensive, that they can’t make a buck.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so — but advantages, in terms of, what’s the vision behind what Musk, Elon Musk, is doing? What does he ultimately want to do?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you know, of course, one of the things that everybody always talks about is the notion of tourists going to space. There are a lot of people with a pile of money who — we have already seen it happen — who have flown on Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station, paying $20 million, $30 million, $40 million for the visit.

So, there is a small well-heeled market out there. Now, you might say, well, what kind of business is that? But, you know, when the airlines were new in the 1920s, not many people could afford to go on an airliner. And no one could have envisioned in 1924, when they were flying a Ford Tri-Motor, a Boeing 777 taking them over to Hong Kong. So, you have to start somewhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if — this whole notion, Miles, though, of letting the private sector determine where we go as a country in space, I mean, what does that — I mean, the United States has been seen as the leading country on the planet when it comes to space travel. What will that do to that image?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you know, it’s interesting, because, you know, of course there’s a lot of competition right now. The Chinese have a manned space program now. Of course, we all know about the Russian space program. The nation of India would like to have a manned spaceflight program. So, there’s a lot of competition in this field.

But no one has decided to hand the reins over to the private sector and give it some space, if you will, to create a business. So, that could be an area where, if you could unleash America’s entrepreneurial spirit, you could march ahead in low Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, in theory, at least, that opens up more money, effort time, resources for NASA to push farther out, to an asteroid, to a moon of Mars, or who knows where.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we were talking earlier about this administration, the Obama administration, coming in. Commercial flight has been a piece of how they have viewed the future of space.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, let’s remember, you know, the commercial entities have always been a part of the space program. It’s just been more like the Pentagon for all these years, cost plus contracts, and, as a result not very efficient. We all know how that goes.

So, the idea of having the commercial players involved is not new. What’s different is how you allow these contracts to be set up. If you allow a fixed-price contract, it changes everything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And still, Miles, you hear the voices of those who say, but wait a minute. Again, even though we’re not turning it over to the private sector, what happens to that kind of just science-for-science-sake kind of work that NASA had been doing?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, that’s precisely what NASA should be doing, many people would suggest, that, frankly, at this point, we have been flying to low Earth orbit 30 years with the space shuttle, and NASA has proven that it has every capability to do that.

Scientifically, technologically, as an engineering feat, that — that’s not as interesting as going farther. And so to the extent that allowing commercial players to sort of rule low Earth orbit, if you will, it frees up resources for NASA to move beyond.

That’s the notion anyhow. Of course, a lot of people look back at the success of Apollo and like to see that recreated. But Apollo had the Cold War context and a blank checkbook and also honoring the wishes of a martyred president. That recipe is no longer here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, the last space shuttle coming up soon.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s coming up, yes. And I have got to say, it’s going to be a sad day. I have a lot of fondness for the program. And I will miss the space shuttles. But, you know, all good things come to an end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Already nostalgia.


JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. Miles O’Brien, thanks for dropping by the studio.

MILES O’BRIEN: My pleasure.