Q&A: Rice expert sees limits in private spaceflight
Space buffs and budget cutters came together last week to watch history being made as a private company launched a spacecraft into orbit and for the first time, guided it back to Earth. George Abbey, senior fellow in space policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy and a former director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, says the launch by Space Explorations Technologies, or SpaceX, was a major achievement but won't be a replacement for the space shuttle. Abbey talked to Chronicle reporter Jeannie Kever about the launch and the challenges facing the space program.
Q: How important was this week's SpaceX launch? Does it deserve all this talk of a new era in space exploration?
A: I wouldn't say it's a new era in space exploration, but in the commercialization of space, where you're bringing private companies into a realm that has been only government agencies in the past. You have now a private company that has had a successful launch, and over and above that, a spacecraft they successfully brought back to Earth. I think that is a great achievement.
Q: And what happens if they ultimately are able to dock it with the International Space Station?
A: The space station is essentially almost complete, so now we need to start seeing a science return, based on our investment. In order to do science on the space station, you need a lot of capability to take cargo up, but also to bring cargo back. If the shuttle is not going to be around, that creates a serious problem. The (SpaceX) capsule would be a way of bringing a small amount of cargo back, but it can't carry very much cargo. If it is modified to carry humans, it will be able to carry even less cargo. The plan is that private companies such as SpaceX would be trying to fill the void left by the shuttle, but I think it's going to be very hard to do that. You can't match the cargo capability of the space shuttle. It has a cargo capability of 60,000 pounds to orbit.
Q: The goal is to free up NASA funds for deep space exploration, but given the limitations, how likely are these public-private partnerships to actually save money?
A: Right now, the only customer is the government, which would be supporting these missions to the space station. If you look at the commercial market, it's going to be very difficult getting the companies where they can get a return based on their own investment. The only customer now, and in the immediate future, is the government.
Q: Might that limit commercial interest?
A: If there is a tourism market, if there are people that really would be interested in paying a lot of money to go into space, you can possibly get some return that way. A lot of these companies are looking at that. But it depends on whether that market is really going to be sufficient to justify the investment.
Q: What are government's long-term goals for commercial spaceflight?
A: If the private industry is really successful, I think it will give the government an alternative. You could then focus NASA on more research, and to exploration beyond Earth orbit, while using (the private) spacecraft to support activities in Earth orbit.
Q: How long might it take to get to that point?
A: It's going to be a while before these private spacecraft can fly humans into orbit. I think they can do some support activities, but it will probably be at least five or six years before private industry or some other alternative can get humans into Earth orbit. The plan now is to use the Russian Soyuz capsules, and the government would be funding that.
Q: So we could send astronauts to the space station on the Soyuz, but that would be it?
A: Yes. The space station is operating today with six people. Without a space shuttle, it's possible the crew size will have to be reduced. And it will be even more difficult to get astronauts up there because of (competition from other countries for seats on the Soyuz). It will provide less opportunities for the country to fly.
Q: What else should we know about the move toward commercialization of space?
A: The space shuttle is probably the most complex and capable spacecraft that's ever been built. There are no spacecraft on the drawing board that can equal the space shuttle. We're giving up a vehicle that's the envy of the world.
Q: Is that a mistake?
A: Yes. People say the space shuttle is old, but it isn't. The orbiters have been performing very well, and they were designed for 100 flights. The external tank and solid rockets are new on every flight. I think the right thing to do is extend the space shuttle and fly longer. That's the only way you can close the gap.
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