Exploring space: where is NASA?

A visit to New Mexico triggered some reflections, which I want to share here.

New Mexico boasts a private spaceport: Spaceport America. While the spaceport is described as a commercial spaceport, it was built and funded by the state of New Mexico. Its ‘anchor tenant’ is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Indeed, for the moment, Spaceport America mainly serves as a base for Virgin Atlantic’s SpaceShipTwo, which – at some point in time – should take commercial passengers to space. So far, Virgin Atlantic’s ‘spaceship’ has only reached a height of 22 km, which is way below the 100 km it is supposed to reach – the line where outer space begins. Even Baumgartner had gone higher for his skydive: his helium balloon – sponsored by Red Bull – brought him to an altitude of 39 km, which is 8 km higher than Joe Kittinger’s jump from a gondola in 1960. It can be noted that these two jumps also took place above New Mexico, which is in fierce competition with other US states, such as California, Florida, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma and even Alaska, to attract space business.

Virgin Galactic and Red Bull obviously still have some way to go when it comes to space travel. Perhaps I should mention some better-known aerospace companies. But that’s not the point here. As I drove around in New Mexico, seeing all these facilities and reading somewhat more about New Mexico’s history in regard to space exploration, I suddenly wondered: where is NASA?

I checked online: NASA stopped its manned missions after the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, and contracts whatever it needs to get in space out to private companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital. The European Space Agency (ESA) also abandoned its Hermes manned spaceflight program. So what’s going on?

The focus is more on earth science nowadays, as evidenced by the collaborative effort known as the International Space Station, but even that is serviced mainly by Russian Soyuz rockets. President Obama scrapped the idea of a permanent moon base, as well as NASA’s Constellation program (i.e. NASA’s successor program to the Space Shuttle), and ordered NASA to focus on Mars. However, when it comes to exploring Mars, the private Mars One initiative – which plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025 – seems to attract more media attention than NASA’s current unmanned missions to Mars.

What we are seeing is, obviously, the privatization of the space industry and what’s not being privatized is militarized. For example, NASA’s X-37 spacecraft project was transferred to DARPA in 2004 and is now operated by the US Air Force. It must be said that they got it off the ground very quickly. However, it is rumored they intend to use the X-37 as a spy satellite, or to deliver weapons from space. But then that’s what one would expect from the military, isn’t it?

Hmm… Interesting. NASA is obviously in search of a new mission. Perhaps they did what they were supposed to do, and that was to bring a man to the moon. What NASA is currently doing, can be done cheaper and faster by others it seems.


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