NASA Takes a New Route in Space Leadership

The end of NASA’s space shuttle program will limit U.S. manned flight in the short term but is unlikely to threaten the country's long-term competitiveness in the space sector.

Buzz Aldrin stands on moon surface with US flag during Apollo 11 mission.
Buzz Aldrin stands on moon surface with US flag during Apollo 11 mission.

Washington is actively promoting the privatization of lower orbital space flight as it redirects billions of dollars on next generation projects to explore deep, or outer, space, while counting on a continuation of international cooperation on big-budget, R&D projects as the International Space Station, or ISS.

"NASA feels strongly that it is time to do things differently and get out of owning and operating low-Earth orbit transportation and hand that off to the private sector," says NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz. "As we move forward, we will continue the United States' leadership in space and derive all the benefits that flow from it. Tomorrow's space program is taking shape right now."

President Obama is an outspoken booster of the space program and supports a 2011 NASA budget close to its 2010 level; he has challenged NASA to duplicate past glory and prowess by exploring deep space and reaching Mars by the 2030s.

Current U.S. space spending, including the proposed $19 billion NASA budget, dwarfs that of other countries. At the same time, however, existing and potential rivals such as Russia, China, India and the U.K. are ratcheting up spending as America's budget flattens.

That disparity is causing concern in some quarters, as is other countries' willingness to share technology and an over-reliance on the privatization strategy.

NASA - The Next Generation - A CNBC Special Report
NASA - The Next Generation - A CNBC Special Report

For one, skeptics point out that it will be several years before the private sector has built a craft capable of taking U.S. astronauts to the ISS. In the meantime, the U.S. will pay for rides on Russia's Soyuz craft, as it has been doing since 2009.

"We will be buying seats on Soyuz and are temporarily out of competition. Down the line when new technologies and new spacecraft are approved and implemented we could conceivably jump ahead again," says Janet Stevens of the Space Foundation. “From a national pride perspective, it’s a blow."

NASA's position on the space station transportation issue is simply that the U.S. needs to stop "outsourcing this work to foreign governments," says Schierholz.

Contracts between NASA and private companies are already in place.

SpaceX, for instance, is building a manned spacecraft called Dragon Capsule and has a $1.6 billion deal for 12 ISS missions, while Orbital Scienceshas a $1.9 billion contract for eight ISS flights. Other companies are also in the mix.

Planned Entrepreneurial Space Milestones

SpaceX 2011 First docking of Dragon spacecraft with the ISS
SpaceX 2011 First launch of Falcon 1e
The Spaceship Company 2011 First flight of SpaceShipTwo in space
XCOR Aerospace 2011 Flight tests of Lynx begin
Orbital Sciences 2011 First launch of Taurus II on Commercial Orbital
Transportation Services demonstration mission
SpaceX 2011 First Dragon cargo-carrying mission to the ISS
Orbital Sciences 2012 First Cygnus cargo-carrying mission to the ISS
Virgin Galactic 2012 SpaceShipTwo enters commercial service
Bigelow Aerospace 2014 Launch of first non-prototype inflatable space habitat
Excalibur Almaz 2013 Commercial orbital human spaceflight missions begin
Google Lunar X PRIZE 2015 Google Lunar X PRIZE expires
Source: Federal Aviation Administration

Obama says the competition between corporations will drive safety standards, innovations and lower transportation costs.

Again, critics disagree.

"In order to retain our capabilities we need both commercial and federally-led efforts," says Dr. Mark Lewis, a professor at the University of Maryland and former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force. “Private industry can't go it alone. It would be like expecting private industry to develop a private fighter jet on its own. It's too expensive and would require too much speculative investment.”

Space is certainly a modern growth industry, but it is a very broad one, which complicates the discussion of the space race.

The global space sector grew for the fifth straight year in 2010, up 7.7 percent to $276.52 billion, based on the Space Foundation's annual study. The industry is expected to grow 5 percent annually until 2020, according to the UK Space Agency.

The bulk of that money is from the private sector and for commercial purposes.

For every orbital launch in 2010, there were 13 active satellites, a growing number of them dedicated to serving the broadband internet connectivity — hardly a great technological leap into the unknown.

Total government spending is only a quarter of the money involved.

At the moment, there's no comparison to the U.S., which accounted for 74 percent ($64.63 billion) of the world total ($87.12 billion) in 2010, according to the Space Foundation's 2011 report.

Nevertheless, other countries are hard at work.

Russia’s Federal Space Agency, for instance, had a 2010 budget of $3.04 billion. The current launch leader, it had twice as many in 2010 as the U.S. and almost half of them were commercial-based.

China’s space spending is estimated to be $2.24 billion and growing quickly.

"In a matter of years they [the Chinese] went from no space program to a program that could put their astronauts into orbit,” says Lewis.

India’s FY 2010 space budget is a mere $1.25 billion, but it is 16.8 percent more than 2009 and is expected to continue expanding at double-digit percentage rates. India has said it wants to send a human into orbit by 2015.

Observers note that for India and China, space exploration is also a symbol of scientific prowess and pride, much like it was for the U.S. and Then Soviet Union five decades ago.

Emerging countries, including Taiwan, Brazil — now working with China on a big project — and Thailand, also are boosting their efforts.

Meanwhile, the U.K. just consolidated all of its civil space efforts into the UK Space Agency, part of an effort to increase its market share of the space industry to 10 percent by 2020.

“Besides China and Russia, I don’t know who can go into space and are willing to share as we do,” says Herbert Fox, a professor of Engineering at the New York Institute of Technology.

Thus far, that's the ISS, operated by the European, Canadian, American, Japanese and Russian space agencies, and where six international astronauts routinely oversee 100 research projects.

The ISS is "one of the most important beacons of international cooperation,” according to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden.

The ISS, however, is arguably the culmination of the first era of space exploration, one marked by the largely two-way race between the U.S. and Soviet Union/Russia

Deep space will take deep pockets and presumably even deeper collaboration.