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Outer Space, Commercialized

NASA has an article up on their website right now, detailing a proposal for a revamp of NASA operations and goals (link).  The plan details a flexible path to Mars, the agency’s current long-term goal, that the current scheme places bubble suited astronauts on Martian soil at earliest, 2030.  The new strategy though, might bring humans to another planet earlier, and make it easier for NASA to provide scientific advancement.

The old idea was basically as such: get back to the ISS under NASA’s own power (instead of getting the Russians to fly us up on old Soyuz capsules), get to the Moon, build a permanent manned installation on the Moon, and then go to Mars.  There are two main problems with this, that the new plan addresses.  First, and probably most importantly, it’s flexible.  Instead of outlining a straight line sort of path with no deviations or pit-stops, it’s more like directions from Google; here’s one way you could go, or another, but you’ll still get there.  And if along the way it seems like there’s traffic up ahead, you just ask for an alternate.  The second, is that it doesn’t provide the best platform for actually getting to Mars, just the Moon (the idea being that the ISS can act as a sort of rest area between here and there).

The new plan of attack though, says a lot of things that are quite different, and dare I say, an adult way of thinking, of the agency.  First, don’t worry so much about how to get to the ISS, but leave it more-so to the new kids on the block, the new-born commercial space companies.  Second, the new plan doesn’t care so much about a huge permanent installation on the Moon.  I mean, what’s the big deal?  You can’t efficiently stop at the moon and then leave for Mars.  It’s like taking an oil tanker to full speed, stopping, and then doing it all over again, all on fumes.  It takes way too much energy to leave orbit for it to make sense.  We could learn things by revisiting the Moon that we might have forgotten over the last 40 years (or never knew), but unless we plan to just let the early Martian explorers become the first settlers too, there’s no point.  Lastly, it sets up some intermediate potential goals as well (remember, alternate routes), which would be much more scientifically important than the first Moon base, such as a NEO visit (Near Earth Object), and orbital, as well as extra-orbital construction, such as giant telescopes, refueling stations for the trip along the way, and maybe even visiting Venus (although not touching down, as that’s likely to result in someone getting crushed like a tin can, as Venus’ atmosphere is a lot denser than our own).

But, although I mentioned ferrying astronauts to space, there’s other opportunities.  The commercial space sector is already starting to ferry satellites into orbit, but this expertise could lead to bringing up more than just a new Cisco router to the space station so those guys up there can use Twitter.  For one, they could be the main transport of goods to build any giant space telescopes.  And it doesn’t just stop at geosynchronous  orbit where most space bound objects currently end up.  If NASA decides to build anything further away, the companies specializing in cargo lift could be all ready before NASA even finalizes plans to do anything further away.  And it’s also likely that any ship bound for the Roman God of War will not be assembled here on Earth, but up there in the freezing cold of space.  That could be a job for such companies as SpaceX, Scaled Composites, EADS Astrium, Orbital Sciences, or any of the other guys.

The full story from NASA, and a list of private spaceflight companies via Wikipedia, if your interested.  There’s also a comparison of what all these companies are trying to accomplish (human flight, cargo, ext), somewhere on Popular Science’s website.  If you become an intrepid investigator on their site and come across it, please post a comment for all to see!

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