Griffin won’t have an easy time. It has been 33 years since the last humans, Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, walked on the Moon. The public presumption during the Apollo years that manned exploration of our solar system was inevitable has given way to the perception that human spaceflight is too hard, dangerous, and expensive. Exploration, the new orthodoxy runs, belongs to unmanned probes sailing through deep space and robots crawling over planets.
Still, though the rationalists are right to argue that the short-term scientific payoffs will come from unmanned exploration, the effort to go into space has always been about more than science. National pride, competition for technological supremacy, the thrill of exploration, and hopes for humankind’s advancement have all played their part. In 2006, moreover, technological progress has improved the prospect that manned, commercial flights into space can be economical and perhaps even profitable.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for instance, claims to have 42,000 customers registered for $200,000 rides to the edge of space, indicating significant public support and consumer demand. Sending tourists up for five to seven minutes of weightlessness, however, isn’t manned spaceflight.
Among the small, young aerospace companies that have proposed plans to send human-sized payloads into orbit, including t/Space, SpaceDev, and Interorbital Systems, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is often touted as a frontrunner (see “Space Tourism or Bust”). Musk is an entrepreneur who cofounded PayPal, the online-payment service, and SpaceX has actually built prototype rockets, unlike many of its competitors. The company has made bold promises and adopted aggressive business tactics, filing suit in 2005 against Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of which it accused of violating antitrust laws and inhibiting competition. But SpaceX had to scrub the first test launches of its rocket, the Falcon 1, which is designed to loft small, satellite-sized payloads into orbit and constitutes a feasibility study for the future development of larger launchers for human cargoes.
NASA’s initial efforts to get off the ground saw worse failures. But at the outset, anyway, NASA’s entire reason for being was that the U.S. government believed that a successful space program was essential to America’s security and standing. Things have changed. Musk and other entrepreneurs are left to appeal not to our patriotism but to our pocketbooks: they claim that their companies can make manned launches far less expensive than either NASA missions or today’s main alternative, launches using the Russian company Energia’s Zenit rockets.
Some proposals from private companies represent transformational thinking about manned spaceflight’s economics. In an article for the Mars Society, of which he is president, Robert Zubrin suggests an alternative approach for NASA’s return to the Moon, with a CEV that carries three or four crew members, not four to six. Zubrin, an aerospace engineer formerly with Lockheed and founder of the aerospace company Pioneer Astronautics, argues that this smaller, lighter spacecraft could carry enough fuel to reach the Moon, enter orbit, land, and return to Earth without a separate landing module or an Apollo-style rendezvous in lunar orbit. Such a craft would be simpler and cheaper to build.