The space shuttle Discovery made a safe re-entry landing Monday in only the second shuttle mission since the 2003 destruction during re-entry of the shuttle Columbia.
The successful landing is a good time to discuss the independence of future space missions from government control and the federal treasury.
Current Bush administration plans are to retire the remaining three shuttles by 2010, with 16 more missions during that time.
Given the delays in getting the shuttle ready for this mission, and its ongoing safety problems, that timetable looks optimistic. The first shuttle flew 25 years ago. And although there have been many technological upgrades, the basic shuttle design dates to the early 1970s.
The best approach now would be to scuttle all three shuttles, or privatize the fleet. The problem isn’t just safety, but economics, said Ed Hudgins, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and editor of “Space: The Free Market Frontier.” He said each shuttle launch now costs $500 million to $1 billion.
“From a scientific view, very little is gained” from a shuttle flight, Hudgins said. The shuttle also provides services for the International Space Station. Hauling freight to space for $500 million a trip is too rich for our blood.
The space station is another money pit. In the 1980s its projected cost was $8 billion, but the real cost now is expected to be $50 billion to $100 billion. “Again, the space station is doing very little science,” Hudgins said.
About half of NASA’s $7 billion yearly budget goes to human space exploration — the shuttle and space station — money that could go to better uses, such as unmanned space exploration.
As to human flight, Hudgins pointed to soaring private efforts.
Space.com reported July 5 that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, is financing the New Shepard Reusable Launch System by Blue Origin, a space firm that will launch human flights from Texas.
More famous is SpaceShipOne, built by famed designer Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which in 2004 became the first manned space flight funded by private investors.
And as to President Bush’s call for new manned flights to the moon, former Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Walker, who served as chairman of the House Science Committee, has proposed that the federal government give a 25-year tax exemption to any corporation that establishes a functioning base on the moon. The private sector’s competition for such an incentive likely would encourage the development of new and more efficient space craft and equipment.
These are all new projects and ideas that were unthinkable when the space shuttle program was announced by President Nixon in 1972.
With Discovery safely back on the ground, the whole program should be ended, with the shuttles privatized — if anyone wants them. It’s time for new ideas, new programs, new approaches in exploring the final — and inevitably private — frontier.