As exciting and forward-looking as a shuttle launch can be, however, Tuesday’s liftoff of the Discovery was more about the past than the future.
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 a tiny desert 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. 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 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 dozens of companies are 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.