Friday, June 3, 2011

Smart money today isn't betting on the success of space exploration

Posted by John Keller

Wanna know where American space-exploration efforts are headed? Just watch how the smart money bets.

The Boeing Co., one of the world's largest and most influential aerospace companies, is laying off 510 workers in the company's Space Exploration division in Houston, the company announced today. That's 510 employees. That doesn't sound like Boeing has a lot of confidence in the future of U.S. space exploration.

Okay, Boeing officials are saying the layoffs are due to the planned completion of the Space Shuttle program. I'll buy that. But take a look at the long-term prospects for sustained U.S. space exploration, and you'll find not much there.

It's not that U.S. agencies like NASA, which are in place to promote space exploration, don't want to pursue new projects with vigor. There's just no money, and little, if any, national will to send humans into space on any great scale.

The Shuttle program is ending, the International Space Station is being mothballed, and there's really nothing on the horizon with any prospect for adequate funding to generate much more than the occasional press release.

U.S. space exploration is heading for another dark age. It reminds me of the 1970s after the Apollo program, and after the first U.S. space station program, called Skylab, lost its luster. Apollo was done, the moon was conquered, the nation was exhausted from Vietnam. Nobody wanted to put serious time, energy, and money into space anymore.

The Skylab space station, launched in 1973, was left adrift in space without any support. The Saturn V program was over, the Space Shuttle wasn't ready yet, and Skylab in 1979 sunk into the Earth's atmosphere and burned up on re-entry.

The first Space Shuttle launched in 1981 -- two years too late to save Skylab. Now the Space Shuttle program is over, leaving the U.S. with no spacecraft capable of serving the International Space Station. Russia, about the only country left with the rocket capability to get to the Space Station, doesn't want to pay for supporting that mission anymore.

It's looking like the International Space Station could face the same fate as Skylab. I'm betting that about 510 soon-to-be-former employees of Boeing today are thinking the same thing.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry, but that is really a lot of uninformed nonsense. The end of the Shuttle program in no way means the end of US spaceflight.

    "Smart" people like Jeff Bezos, Robert Bigelow, Richard Branson, John Carmack, Elon Musk, and others are putting huge amounts of their own money into human spaceflight. So smart money is, in fact, being bet on US spaceflight. Upwards of $2B is going for various "NewSpace" style human spaceflight projects.

    Even Boeing is betting its own money on spaceflight. In collaboration with Bigelow, Boeing is developing a commercial vehicle to deliver crews to the ISS and to Bigelow's commercial stations. Unlike it's Shuttle contracts, Boeing has to put up internal investment to compete for the commercial crew transport program.

    The ISS is in no way "being mothballed". It will have a full crew of six till at least 2020 and they will carry out a rich program of experimentation in the coming years. The crews will get there initially on Russian Soyuz but by 2015 they will arrive on commercial vehicles built and operated by the likes of Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin, or SNC.

    The Shuttle was a hyper-expensive, contraption that should have been retired 20 years ago. We are entering an incredibly exciting time in which human spaceflight will finally start to become accessible to more than just a tiny number of govt. employees.