NASA has posted the following image of the return of the Space Shuttle Atlantis to Earth earlier this week:
Taken from the International Space Station, it’s a unique view of the craft’s fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Soon thereafter, Texas Governor (and likely presidential candidate) Rick Perry issued a strong statement that included the following:
Unfortunately, with the final landing of the Shuttle Atlantis and no indication of plans for future missions, this administration has set a significantly different milestone by shutting down our nation’s legacy of leadership in human spaceflight and exploration, leaving American astronauts with no alternative but to hitchhike into space.
Though it’s not just the Obama Administration. There has been a lack of leadership in space policy since the end of the Apollo era. The next few years will reveal the success (or failure) of efforts to shift the emphasis to the private sector. While I do see the merits of such a move, I don’t foresee the economic incentives necessary for the private sector to reach Mars in my lifetime. That’s profoundly disappointing.
On the other hand, I don’t trust NASA to manage such an effort within the austere limits the US Government will have to abide by for the foreseeable future. So is there an alternative? How about financial incentives for (American) private companies to meet milestones that get us progressively closer to the red planet? Think a scaled-up version of the Ansari X Prize. It’s not a new idea, but maybe one whose time has come. Lots of private money going to work, with much lower risk and cost to the taxpayer. What’s not to like?