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As a writer of science fiction, as well as a former astrophysics major in college, I usually like to stay up to date on science news. Space news in particular. And when I hear the words, “manned space travel,” I tend to get very excited.
See, when I was a kid, I remember the first shuttle going up. I was completely obsessed with the NASA space program. I wanted to be an astronaut. I went to Space Camp. I wanted to go up more than anything in the world. But then accidents happened, and budget cuts happened, and the political world seemed to get in the way. Shuttles got old and were retired. And there was never enough money, or, it seemed, interest.
On Tuesday (September 16th) when NASA posted there would be an announcement about their Commercial Crew Development contract, I was glued to NASA Television. For those of you who don’t know what this is, you can find some information on NASA’s website as well as the program’s Wikipedia page. In some simple terms, NASA is contracting two civilian companies to build vehicles and launch systems in order to reach low Earth orbit by 2017, followed by missions to asteroids and, eventually, Mars. Companies made proposals to NASA’s committee of career civil servants, who had the difficult job of choosing among them to find one or two that would meet all of their criteria.
There were four main functions that had to be accomplished by the spacecraft of whichever company was chosen for the contract. According to the workshop given by NASA on May 20, 2011, on the requirements of the Commercial Crew Transportation Contract, these functions are:
1. Perform ISS (International Space Station) crew rotations
2. Deliver and return four crew and their equipment
3. Provide assured crew return in the event of an emergency
4. Serve as a 24-hour safe haven in the event of an emergency
(NASA Commercial Crew Program Workshop, Session 4: Key Driving Requirements Walkthrough; Rob Bayt, Panel Lead; May 20, 2011)
At the press conference Tuesday, NASA announced that Boeing, with their CST 100, and Space X, with their Crew Dragon, have earned the contracts for $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion respectively.
This contract is exciting for many reasons. First of all, it’s fabulous to know that people of my son’s generation will be able to see the Earth from space. That had long been a dream of mine, and while I haven’t been able to realize it (yet!), it’s inspiring to think maybe my son or nephews/niece might be able to walk on the moon or an asteroid–maybe even Mars.
If all goes well and the program meets its 2017 launch date, it will mean humans can go beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in forty years. Forty years!
The Commercial Crew Transportation Contract will also allow these private companies to offer transportation privately, in addition to the services they provide to NASA. This will lower costs of the program, allowing for more research and development, and will allow NASA to afford other opportunities.
With this program, we will no longer be reliant on any other country to go into space. Our entire space program will not be in jeopardy if another country can’t afford it, or if politics get in the way. This will provide jobs within our country and make us a player again in scientific and engineering advances throughout the world. We will, as a nation, be “poised to explore a beckoning universe,” as astronaut Mike Fincke said during the news conference Tuesday.
Space is, in the immortal words of Gene Roddenberry, the final frontier. And fortunately for our endeavoring spirits, it is larger than we can imagine. I’m so happy we as a nation are taking the steps, no matter how small, to explore that place, and to expand our existence beyond what our forefathers ever thought possible.