When Space Shuttle flights ended in July 2011 some observers were struck by the fact that 50 years earlier in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared the goal of putting a man on the Moon. If that speech—and the ambitious program that followed—opened an era of manned spaceflight for the U.S. then the last landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis was surely the close of that era.
After nearly three decades under development, the completion of the International Space Station, the current dependence of the U.S. on Russia to transport its astronauts to and from the ISS, and the growth of space ambitions and capabilities around the world have prompted critics to lament the demise of U.S. space leadership and the end of U.S. human spaceflight.
Those critics are misreading the moment.
We’re experiencing not just the closing of one era, but a transition to a new one. But to enter that new era, the conception of U.S. spaceflight must move beyond Apollo-style flags-and-footprints missions. The endeavor must generate scientific, economic, and societal value in a sustainable manner that is worth the risk and the cost.
The space community’s task for the next generation is to discover whether and how this can be achieved. A key element to this transition is the emergence of an assortment of commercial entities that will be able to fully assume functions formerly the domain of the government, such as the launching of humans into orbit. In the next few years, this could become a largely private-sector endeavor in the U.S.
But that’s just the beginning, as entrepreneurial companies with names like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources Inc. aim to mine extraterrestrial materials and eventually establish in-space manufacturing enterprises.
Article by James A. Vedda as supplied on www.asme.org
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