Fly Me to the Moon, then Mars, then ….

Are the little, blue, aliens already here?
Are the little, blue, aliens already here?
“High diddle diddle, The Cat played the Fiddle, The Cow jump’d over the Moon, The little dog laugh’d to see such Craft, And the Dish ran away with the Spoon.” Mother Goose wrote that in 1765. Consider it as proof that man has been looking for a way to shed its gravitational coil and touch the stars for a long time. Let’s face simple facts, mankind has only benefited when it makes strides, not when it builds walls. We may not be the beneficiaries of Manifest Destiny as we thought so long ago, but we do posses the need to cross the impossible to find the unknowable. Those who define themselves rigidly have set themselves apart from humanity. They exist only as global parasites waiting for their predictable deaths. I could care less how holistic their beliefs may be; those who do not strive, atrophy.

It pains me to hear some people, otherwise viable examples of humanity, cling to the rocks of the past as the tides of the future wash over them. Our survival depends solely on our ability to swim in the sea of time. Fortunately, not all is lost. As Leroy Chiao reports, with the decline of government sponsored space flight, entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill the void and save humanity.

U.S. policy on access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is on the edge of a dramatic shift.

Currently, only three governments have the independent capability of launching astronauts into LEO: The United States, Russia and China. After the U.S. Space Shuttle is decommissioned from service, there will be only two.

The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, headed by the highly respected former aerospace executive Norm Augustine, included in their report the option of stimulating commercial efforts to provide access to LEO.

It makes sense: We have been flying to LEO for almost 50 years, so the technology is quite mature and available. The challenge is to make this a commercial practicality.

The idea of private, commercial space access has been around for decades. It is not a new one, and it is not one that has yet found success. The advent of SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X-PRIZE in 2004 was an important milestone.

Although the privately built vehicle was only designed for suborbital flight, it proved that a non-government spacecraft was possible. Commercial orbital flight will be much more difficult, but I believe it is possible.

Many of my colleagues and peers have written articles and pieces deriding the idea of commercial LEO access. Indeed, the track record of the self-described “New Space” companies has thus far been marked generally with failure and arrogance.

Not all, but many of these folks, before they run their companies into the ground, seem to spend the bulk of their time attending self-serving, self-aggrandizing conferences where openly slinging mud at NASA is sport. This is hardly constructive, and it brings discredit to others who have serious aspirations for the future of commercial spaceflight.

However, I respectfully disagree with my colleagues who believe that only governments can and should engage in human spaceflight. We members of the Augustine Commission (as the review committee came to be known) fully intended for the commercial LEO efforts to include contributions from the traditional aerospace companies.

These companies, or their predecessors, built every U.S. crewed spacecraft to date. They have much to offer. To exclude them entirely would be foolish and would waste valuable knowledge.

The time is right for commercial human spaceflight. Private companies should learn the lessons from NASA and traditional aerospace, and then try to apply them in a more efficient manner.

It is understandable how and why the processes for government/contractor space programs have evolved into what they are today: Bureaucratic and inefficient, but safe. The key is to work in a smart manner to provide efficiency, without sacrificing safety, perhaps in partnership with traditional aerospace companies.

Any time there is significant change in the air, the establishment gets nervous. This is to be expected. Sometimes dramatic change is necessary to achieve fresh results. Time will tell if the private companies will achieve LEO access, but I for one, remain optimistic.

Americans have always been innovative, flexible and doggedly determined. If it can be done, the citizens of the United States still embody the creativity and courage to find the way.

By way of introduction, here is the bio I was supplied by the author;

Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005. During his 15-year career, he flew four missions into space, three times on space shuttles and once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. On that flight, he served as the commander of Expedition 10, a six-and-a-half-month mission. Dr. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both U.S. and Russian spacesuits, and has logged nearly 230 days in space. He was a member of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, and is currently an Executive Vice President of Excaibur Almaz, a private commercial space venture.

Yeah, he’s way smarter than me. Or you. Or anyone we know.

Shortly after this was published, our new best friend, Ian O’Neill wrote that one company has picked up the gauntlet and is pushing for a way for humans to live on Mars.

On Wednesday, SpaceX released a pretty cool promo video for its commercial crew development program. If it were any other commercial spaceflight company, I probably would have filed it under “Nice, but we’ve got a long way to go.” But this is SpaceX, a company that is proving its launch capabilities year after year, the most recent landmark launch being the flight of the Dragon capsule last year.

But company founder Elon Musk has far loftier goals than simply putting stuff into low-Earth orbit. That’s so last century. No, he wants to see SpaceX go to Mars, facilitating the expansion of mankind’s influence throughout the solar system. If there’s someone wanting a ride, Musk wants SpaceX to be the first company they call.

Only last week, Musk went on the record to say SpaceX was aiming to make commercial trips to the Red Planet a reality within 20 years. And after seeing Falcon 1 make its first successful foray into orbit in Sept. 2008; watching that awesome Falcon 9 thunder into space in June 2010; then the Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule into a near-perfect orbital insertion in Dec. 2010; it’s little wonder I’m more than just a little excited about a future with SpaceX.

Now that SpaceX has secured NASA funding and well on course to supplying (and launching astronauts to) the space station, seeing the SpaceX Dragon capsule performing a propulsive landing on Mars (using a dual purpose launch abort system no less) doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

No it doesn’t.

Back in the nascent days of space flight many thought that inter-solar travel would be accomplished by some guy in his barn knocking together a rocket. Think Astronaut Farmer without the cool special effects. As it turns out, they may not be that far off, at least in the general sense of things.

Instead of some giant bureaucracy winding in upon itself, progress is coming from individuals who are unafraid to dream and unafraid to step forth and take the necessary strides.

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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