July 12, 2011 at 10:18 PM ET
Pessimists are bemoaning the end of U.S. human spaceflight, but optimists see the next few years as a transition to a new paradigm that will energize commercial ventures and get astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Nixon administration. Which way do you see it?
There seems to be plenty of gloom to go around as the space shuttle program nears its end. Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and other commissions sizing up the space effort, had this to say via Twitter: "Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards through time."
One of the astronauts on the first space shuttle flight in 1981, Bob Crippen, told me that he was disappointed that the shuttle program's end would leave NASA "without the capability to put our astronauts in orbit ourselves." And he questioned whether NASA had the right vision for future exploration. "I personally favored going to the moon," he said.
The frustration flared up today during a House committee hearing with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as the sole witness, or sole target. "We have waited for answers that have not come," Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas, told Bolden. "We have run out of patience. ... I would like to point out today that the committee reserves the right to open an investigation into these continued delays and join the investigation initiated by the Senate."
Bolden, a retired Marine general, took the hostile fire. "You have the right guy here to criticize," he said. "I am the leader of America's space program."
He laid out the main points of the post-shuttle plan:
"We are not abandoning human spaceflight," Bolden said. "American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half century because we have laid the foundation for success."
So there is an evolving plan for the future ... just as there was an evolving plan for the space shuttle system in the early to mid-1970s when the Apollo program came to an end. Under the best-case scenario, that plan will lead to actual flights within four to six years, which is less time than it took between the last Saturn 5 and the first shuttle launch. But there are lots of questions surrounding the post-shuttle plan:
After 30 years of grand successes, tragic failures and unfulfilled promises, the era of the space shuttle is ending. We may not yet know exactly what kind of American spaceship will be the next to fly. And because of that, thousands of people will be laid off by NASA and its contractors in the weeks ahead. But we're not witnessing the death of the American space program. At least that's the way Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of SpaceX, sees it.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's not the death of anything," he told me. "What we're really facing is quite the opposite. I think we're at the dawn of a new era of spaceflight, one which is going to advance much faster than it ever has in the past."
Now why would he say that? Over the next few days, we'll be presenting a series of Q&A interviews with Musk and other folks involved in shaping the post-shuttle era. What they've told me runs counter to the gloom-and-doom talk, but you might well have a different opinion. Feel free to weigh in with your comments.
Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," Alan's book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.