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NASA's future depends on spaceflight neophytes

Image: Launch Pad 39B
Hardhat workers dismantle Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, with Launch Pad 39A in the background.NASA file

During the five decades that followed the first launch of an American into space — Alan Shepard’s flight on May 5, 1961 — NASA’s accomplishments were respected and admired the world over.  Those responsible for the agency’s successes followed a simple axiom: Good is the enemy of great. NASA either flew with the best and most experienced, or not at all.

This week brought the first hint that NASA’s standards could be dropping. With the space shuttle era nearing its end, the agency awarded more than $269 million in contracts to build commercial spaceships: two capsules, a space plane and a gumdrop spaceship to taxi astronauts to and from the International Space Station or other destinations in low Earth orbit.

NASA says Americans will be riding their own spaceships once again by the middle of the decade. But old hands argue that it'll be more like seven to 10 years.

Here's the lineup announced on Monday:

  • Blue Origin, a secretive company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with little history, was awarded $22 million.  Blue Origin will work on its gumdrop capsule and an escape system.
  • A contract for $80 million to the Sierra Nevada Corp. This little-known company plans to build a reusable Dream Chaser space plane that looks and feels like a mini-space shuttle. The craft is designed to ride a rocket into orbit and land on a runway.
  • SpaceX — which successfully launched two rockets from Cape Canaveral over the past year — received $75 million. The company's orbital Dragon capsule went through its first launch-to-splashdown test in December.
  • A little more than $92 million went to the Boeing Co., the only true veteran of the group, to continue building its Apollo-style CST-100 capsule.  Boeing hopes its CST-100 will also visit private space stations like the one to be launched by Bigelow Aerospace.

These commercial contract awards came on the heels of last week’s congressional approval of a spending plan for America’s once-proud space agency.  NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a veteran spaceflier himself, hailed the legislative action.

"We appreciate the work of Congress to pass a 2011 spending bill," Bolden said in a statement.  "NASA now has appropriated funds to implement the 2010 Authorization Act, which gives us a clear path forward to continue America’s leadership in human spaceflight, exploration and scientific discovery.  Among other things, this bill lifts funding restrictions that limited our flexibility to carry out our shared vision for the future.

"With this funding, we will continue to aggressively develop a new heavy-lift rocket, multipurpose crew vehicle and commercial capability to transport our astronauts and supplies on American-made and launched spacecraft.  We are committed to living within our means in these tough fiscal times — and we are committed to carrying out our ambitious new plans for exploration and discovery."

When they heard Bolden's words, the remnants of America's space family sang hallelujah. Our role in space could be getting back on track.  We just might not lose our first-place standing. 

But then came the commercial contracts for the neophytes. NASA's decision leaves out some of America's best-known aerospace companies and discards billions of taxpayer dollars already spent on workable hardware. The space agency will have to buy tickets on Russian spaceships to reach the International Space Station for years to come. NASA has already signed up for more than $1 billion worth.

Reflecting on the situation last year, retired astronaut and senator John Glenn asked President Barack Obama, "What do we do if the Russians fail?  Leave our astronauts up there?"

Hope not.

It's not as if hiring the inexperienced was NASA's only choice. For the same money spent on these commercial contracts, the space agency could have had a commercial U.S.-European rocket. It would have been provided by ATK Space Launch Systems, the builders of the space shuttles’ solid booster rockets; and by Astrium, the company that builds the liquid-fueled core stage of the European Ariane 5.

For the past 25 years, the space shuttle’s booster rockets have flown 214 times successfully.  That’s 107 shuttle missions in a row, with two rockets for each.   Meanwhile, France’s Ariane rocket has flown 41 times without a failure, and the hardware was originally designed to be human-rated — that is, cleared for flying astronauts. The Liberty rocket would have used NASA’s existing facilities at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, trimming back the costs of operation as well as the time needed for Americans to be riding their own spacecraft again.

Over the past five decades, Americans have never been without their own crew spacecraft either flight-ready or just short of being ready to go. The American-European rocket had the potential of flying within four years if a spacecraft was ready. Although the neophytes say they'll be ready in a similar time frame, the veterans think it'll take as long as 10 years.

Those who gave all they had to NASA for decades — roughly 20,000, counting direct and indirect employment — are looking at massive layoffs. Before summer passes, the last members of the space shuttle launch team and Mission Control flight controllers will fade into history, with little to show for their devotion.

The NASA of Shepard, Glenn, Neil Armstrong and so many giants of history is gone, but these giants still have their pride.

When asked what they did with their life, each can proudly say, “It was called Apollo. We went to the moon.”

Just one old curmudgeon’s opinion.

More about the future of spaceflight:

NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every American spaceflight. He has written eight books about space science and exploration — including an updated e-book version as well as printed copies of “Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings,” written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The “Moon Shot” e-book, with embedded video and fresh stories about America’s greatest space adventures, is available for pre-ordering through Amazon.com.