It was exhilarating to watch the space shuttle Discovery lift off on what looks to be a successful flight into space Tuesday morning. Despite setbacks and stagnation, the idea of venturing into space still appeals to something similar to the human impulse that launched sea voyages of discovery hundreds of years ago and helped to make the world seem less overwhelming.
As exciting as a shuttle launch can be, however, and despite brave comments from National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials — “It’s about hope, it’s about imagination, and it’s about the future,” said NASA chief Michael Griffin — Tuesday’s launch is more about the past.
Shuttles had not flown since the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the atmosphere on re-entry 2 1/2 years ago. The shuttle is an outmoded vehicle that was never practical and is inordinately expensive. Its mission this week is to resupply a space station that is still far from being completed and whose usefulness is dubious.
Aircraft designer and entrepreneur Burt Rutan showed us the future of space flight last October when SpaceShipOne, flying out of tiny Mojave Airport, left the atmosphere and returned to Earth, for the second time in a week, claiming the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million, put up by private enthusiasts. There may be a role for an agency like NASA in basic research or helping to define goals. California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a veteran House Science Committee member, has introduced legislation allowing NASA to offer prizes to those who accomplish certain space flight objectives.
But space flight on a continuing basis should be and almost certainly will be the domain of the private sector. That is as it should be. Should those who see space flight as irrelevant have to pay for dreams of ill-defined utility?
The space shuttle program, during the time it has not flown, has continued to cost taxpayers about $4.5 billion a year. Burt Rutan made a success of SpaceShipOne — from conception to design to engineering to test flights to ultimate success — for about $26 million, with most of that money coming from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Virgin Airlines has already ordered larger space ships suitable for tourist use. Rutan is now sorting out offers from competing financiers to pay for his next ventures. All concerned expect to make money eventually.
And there are dozens of companies eager to get in on the business.
The space shuttle may do some repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope soon. After that, the government should get out of the way of the real innovators.