The End of an Era

In case you missed it Tuesday morning, the space shuttle Discovery streaked through the skies above downtown Washington, D.C. on its farewell tour before it will come to rest at Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.  Thousands gathered along the National Mall and on rooftops scattered throughout the city to catch a glimpse of the shuttle as it piggy-backed on a Boeing 747 up from Cape Canaveral.  People cheered as the shuttle soared overhead, and for many, especially those who have grown up in the midst of the awe and wonder of the American space program, the flight symbolically marks the end of an era.  In 2011, NASA decided to end the low-orbit shuttle program in favor of focusing on farther destinations, and Discovery was the first of the three retired shuttles to head to a museum.

Many people decried the decision as a sign that America’s science and technology dominance was waning and that the nation’s innovative capacity was not what it used to be.  Others felt that if it didn’t already, the termination of the program would lead to innovative decline as the research was cut and motivation was gone.  It remains to be seen whether there will be negative effects from the termination of the low-orbit program, such as fewer knowledge spillovers from research or a lack of students and young people interested in science and space because the possibility of space travel is remote.

However, a few private entrepreneurs and their companies are waiting in the wings to pick up the slack and capitalize on NASA’s withdrawal from the “space market.”  Companies like Space Exploration Technologies Corp, also known as SpaceX, and will begin carrying cargo to the International Space Station, and the first commercial cargo flight is expected within weeks.  Commercial passenger craft are unlikely to be ready for another 3 to 5 years.  Nonetheless, low-earth orbit could become a whole new market for luxury travel and leisure, just the way commercial airline flights were in its early days.  Despite the fact the end of the NASA shuttle tugs at the heartstrings of many Americans, this is certainly not the end of space flight for the United States.  Fittingly, America’s spirited entrepreneurs seem ready to fill the gaps and continue to push innovation forward into the future.

Posted by Brian Gowen

Sources: The Wall Street Journal

Photo credit The space shuttle Discovery flies over Washington, D.C. courtesy of flickr user Official US Navy Imagery


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