Billionaire businessman and inventor Jeff Bezos are an innovative pioneer in the aerospace industry. He has invested his personal fortune in Blue Origin, a private spaceflight company, and in various other ventures. Recently, he announced that he had resolved to make the maiden flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle using NASA funds.
The new program will use six reusable capsules as the basis of its crewed spacecraft. Each capsule will carry up to six astronauts. The first launch of the mission will be a chance for test pilots to practice operating the craft in the atmosphere. That would be a major step toward making the first astronauts to live and operate in space.
What if a problem occurs during the flight? How would the capsule deal with it? That is one of the questions that NASA officials are considering as they plan the next flight of the unmanned Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. They have already approved a design by Boeing for a lander that could function as a base for future robotic exploratory missions to the moon and Mars. If the choice is made to select an aerospace contractor to build and operate the lander under the NASA contract, then the agency must also decide how to fund the program.
Congress has provided NASA with some financial flexibility when it comes to its space programs. The only thing that it has done is pass the Space Act, which provides the agency with a virtual monopoly on human space flight. In addition to having no real competition, the act makes NASA responsible for all costs associated with its program. Although the space agency is now working to develop a heavy-lift rocket capable of transporting astronauts to destinations beyond the earth’s atmosphere, it needs financial means to do so. And, although NASA has discussed developing a heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle (RSLS), it has yet to work out a way to pay for it using private resources.
The chief financial risk associated with the moon missions could be lost income during the four-year construction time period. Since the program is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), the eventual cost of constructing the lander and the associated technologies will be partially funded by NASA. If the CCDP contract is not renewed, NASA will not be able to procure additional CCCP funds from other sources. Hence, the costs associated with the CCDP lander and associated technologies will not be fully paid by the revenue stream generated from the space program.
Beyond the immediate financial concerns, there is also a political dilemma faced by NASA in the form of a possible loss of political clout if the CCDP contract is not renewed. The political views of both President Bush and President Obama are at odds with each other on the issue of space exploration and the cancellation of the CCDP contract could jeopardize the Bush Administration’s space initiatives. At the present time, however, President Bush seems to be the more hawkish of the two leaders. In any case, NASA is obligated to follow the CCDP schedule, which is based upon launch within the decade.
For NASA to successfully execute its human space exploration program, it needs a steady source of revenue. Commercial cargo programs such as the commercial cargo service currently being used by NASA’s Commercial Cargo Program may be an option for revenue generation. Alternatively, an agency like the Air Force or the Navy could develop a laser system to land lunar Lander and send it to the moon. However, neither of these programs have the political will to continue funding these programs if they do not generate an ongoing revenue stream. Furthermore, once a Lander lands on the moon, it is then up to NASA to spend the money to repair the machine or to return it to Earth.
Without an effective revenue stream, NASA will find it increasingly difficult to keep operating these programs, which is why the organization is suffering right now. If NASA is unable to generate an adequate revenue stream, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Space Shuttle program (ST Shuttle) could be terminated. This would be a huge blow to the space research community and the overall research and technological base of the United States. The United States has invested billions into its space program, and if it were to lose this funding source, it would be devastating to the way space works in America. The United States should not make any excuses for not developing a reliable transportation system to get people and supplies to the moon, and it certainly should not abandon its commitment to exploring space.
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