On July 8 2011 the last of the United States Space Shuttles will ascend into earth orbit for the final time. Some see it as the end of an age of manned space flight, others see it as an opportunity for the private sector to take center stage in a new era of space flight. The next space age will be driven not by governments but by brave entrepreneurs, aerospace startups, open source space ventures and private space consortiums. NASA can no longer be relied upon to take humanity to the stars in any significant way; according to John Kavanagh at Quora “NASA has no plans to replace the entirety of the Space Shuttle’s crew, cargo and on-orbit service capabilities with one rocket or spacecraft. The capabilities will be unbundled and replaced separately.” Many names and vehicles have been mentioned over the years as possible replacements for the shuttle but what is missing is a clear message, vision and direction from NASA. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle touted by NASA seems like a return to 1960’s space vehicles and is quite frankly not very visionary or inspiring surely we can do better. What is clear is that NASA represents the past and although its accomplishments and contributions are many its time is over.
Now a new generation of space vehicles has emerged, most notably was the successful flight of Space Ship One a privately built suborbital space plane. Space Ship One demonstrated that you can take a human being into low earth orbit without the budget, bureaucracy or politics of NASA. Many more commercial space vehicles and landers are on the way including; Virgin Galactic Space Ship Two, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace and SpaceX Falcon 9 . With the proper funding and support efforts like these can make the long awaited dream of space travel possible. Once we achieve low earth orbit then what? What about travel to the Moon, Mars and beyond? There have been impressive technological developments in long range propulsion platforms that hold tremendous promise. The VASIMR or Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket is capable of sending a crew to Mars just 39 days, such a capability could make trips to Mars almost routine.