Op-Ed

New era begins of innovative commercial space flight

STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson, left, looks on as fellow crew members, from left, pilot Doug Hurley, mission specialist Sandy Magnus and mission specialist Rex Walheim wave flags after arriving at the Kennedy Space Center Monday. The crew is to lift off Friday on a 12-day mission to the space station. The launch will bring an end to NASA's shuttle program.
STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson, left, looks on as fellow crew members, from left, pilot Doug Hurley, mission specialist Sandy Magnus and mission specialist Rex Walheim wave flags after arriving at the Kennedy Space Center Monday. The crew is to lift off Friday on a 12-day mission to the space station. The launch will bring an end to NASA's shuttle program. AP

The 135th and final space shuttle mission is scheduled to liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center Friday. In order to maintain America's leadership in human spaceflight, NASA is partnering with American commercial companies to develop a new generation of spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station.

New and revolutionary private space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada are partnering with NASA to end our dependence on Russia. This partnership allows American taxpayers' money to be spent more wisely and on a variety of projects.

The University of Kentucky has a group of students working with these commercial companies, inspired by their missions, to build satellites and help our state's foremost science and engineering institution expand the boundaries of our knowledge on and off Earth. It is imperative that Congress fully fund the commercial crew program within NASA.

After the shuttle retires, NASA will be paying the Russian space program $63 million a seat to fly US astronauts on their Soyuz launch vehicle. The outsourcing to the Russians will continue for the next few years, but American companies are stepping up to fill the void with vastly cheaper options.

A passionate set of entrepreneurs have put their own money on the line and are competing with one another for the chance to send astronauts back into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and to the space station, by designing and building their own rockets and several varieties of spacecraft. If Congress fully funds the commercial crew program, NASA can continue to partner with these American companies to carry American human space flight into the 21st Century.

The unique structure of the partnership between NASA and these commercial companies requires milestones to be met before NASA provides money to a company. This not only ensures real progress is being made, but also creates accountability that is rarely found in other government contracts.

Once NASA has awarded each company its allotted amount of funding, NASA will not ask Congress to appropriate further funds. The companies are required to provide any additional funding needed to complete development. This approach allows NASA to fund multiple projects without being required to pay every dime for those projects, increasing the return on taxpayer dollars.

By seeding these growing companies with government money, similar to the early days of aviation, less constraint is put on them, driving innovation more efficiently in order to close the spaceflight gap we now have before us. By allocating work to private companies to reach LEO, NASA can focus on what NASA does best: deep space travel and technology development.

With this shift, NASA can go from an agency caught in a rut to the trailblazer it once was, the trailblazer that inspired the current generation of entrepreneurs to push the boundaries of what a company can do. With this move, NASA can concentrate on bigger ideas — ideas that require the brightest minds in the world to solve.

Some of those minds live right here in Lexington.

Students from UK are extremely energized about these emerging commercial space companies. These young scientists and engineers have a passion for space and can identify with the attitudes of these commercial space companies. Congress's support of commercial spaceflight will not only help ensure United States dominance in space, but it will raise awareness of the important work these companies are doing and spur future students towards careers in science and math.

The commercial space industry is vital to the nation's supremacy in space, and Kentucky students are excited about the opportunities that it holds for our future.

  Comments