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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Where Do We Go From Here?

Tomorrow, NASA is expected to launch the Space Shuttle Discovery back into orbit. STS-114 has been dubbed "Return to Flight," as it is the first shuttle mission since February of 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry killing all seven astronauts aboard.

I am personally a huge supporter of space exploration and it is certainly good to see the space program up and running again (especially with Hokie astronaut Charles Camarda on board!). However, as we cheer NASA's resilience, we might also want to ask some questions about the agency's future.

The main question I have is: Why are we still using the Space Shuttle? The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo platforms were used for a total of about 13 years. The first shuttle launch was conducted in 1981, meaning that the shuttle program is nearing the quarter-century mark. While the shuttle today is pretty much the same as it was back in 1981, the costs of the shuttle program have far exceeded its original projections. Granted, the shuttle program has brought many benefits as well, but it still begs the question why NASA has as yet failed to develop a reasonable alternative to the shuttle.

While President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, announced in 2004, is a positive first step towards a constructive agenda, it is concerning that NASA continues to appear largely as an agency that reacts to situations, rather than proactively developing solutions before problems arise. With all the brainpower and technology at their disposal, the overly bureaucratic operation of NASA is particularly unsettling.

I don't know what the solution is to NASA problems, and I suspect there is more than one, but one thing I predict we can expect is increased competition from the private sector as entrepreneurs discover that there is money to be made in spaceflight and exploration. Hopefully, this competition will encourage NASA to raise its game. After all, the sky isn't the limit, it's just the beginning.


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