(Still) Getting Off the Ground


In the November 1981 issue of reason, James C. Bennett imagined a future government finally ending the Space Shuttle program in order to focus on larger issues like "unemployment problems." If President Ronald Reagan nipped the Shuttle program in the bud, Bennett predicted, the private space industry would blossom. Space travel would become "an everyday occurrence" by the year 2000, with competition encouraging innovation and pulling prices back down to Earth.

In reality, SpaceShipOne, a suborbital spacecraft designed by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, completed the first manned private spaceflight less than a year after President George W. Bush's 2004 directive to end the Shuttle program. Since then, the private sector has been steadily making headlines in the space industry, from inflatable space hotels in the works at Bigelow Aerospace, to the first commercial spacecraft to ever be recovered from orbit, SpaceX's Dragon. Not long after the final Shuttle flight in July 2011, NASA signed a deal with Virgin Galactic to buy seats and cargo space on three private suborbital space flights for a bargain of $4.5 million—less than 1 percent of the cost of a single Shuttle launch.

The Space Shuttle program wasn't the only point of concern for Bennett. Three decades ago, there was no official regulatory agency for private space flight. But it didn't take long for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) to assume that role, as established in the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act. Now part of the Federal Aviation Authority, the AST sets guidelines for private citizens to enter space, licensing everything from private spaceports (there are eight in the U.S.) to re-entry from space (the first and only such license was issued for SpaceX's Dragon in 2010).

NASA has graduated from sole producer and consumer of space transportation to merely one consumer of several, but the agency's continued gatekeeper role still puts taxpayers on the hook for space exploration. 

So far, the private sector has thrived in the less regulated field of unmanned spaceflight, developing successful business models around satellite communications that provide services for GPS, television, cell phones, and even radio programs. But private manned spaceflights have lagged behind, suffocating beneath the weight of NASA's monopoly on manned space transportation services. With the Shuttle program finally out of the way, prospects for a commercial presence in space are looking up.