End of an era?

As Nasa’s oldest space shuttle, Discovery, swooped in over an almost clear sky at the Kennedy Space Center, emotions were running high.

The event took place at 11:57 a.m. EST on Wednesday 9th March marking the completion of the shuttle’s 27-year flying career, and with it what many believe to be the end of an exciting era in science and exploration.

‘It’s a pretty bittersweet moment,’ said shuttle commander Steve Lindsey as he stood on the runway. ‘As the minutes pass, I’m actually getting sadder and sadder about this being the last flight.’

Since 1984, Discovery has flown 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, orbited Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles. Piloted by a six-strong astronaut crew, Discovery had made a 13-day journey of more than five million miles to get back home.

‘Discovery is an amazing spacecraft and she has served her country well,’ said Nasa chief, Charles Bolden. ‘As we celebrate the many accomplishments of this magnificent ship, we look forward to an exciting new era of human spaceflight that lies ahead.’

But what exactly does lie ahead? There are now only two more missions scheduled for the space shuttle fleet, involving the Discovery’s sister ships, Endeavour and Atlantis. After these missions, Nasa will have no replacement space shuttles, and no capability to send astronauts into space.

Instead it will have to rely on Russian spacecraft and the private sector to taxi cargo and humans to and from the International Space Station (ISS)- something that many people believe will halt progress in manned space flight.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, argues PayPal co-founder, Elon Musk. He has already received a  $1.6 billion contract from Nasa for his business venture, SpaceX, to provide unmanned cargo deliveries to the ISS. In December 2010, his company became the first private group to successfully launch its own space capsule into orbit and back.

Boeing has also unveiled plans in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace to build a capsule-based spaceship called the CST-100 that will take passengers to the ISS. This follows a $18m grant from Nasa to push forward its completion under the Commercial Crew Development programme.

In the UK, companies such as Reaction Engines and Virgin Galactic are working on space propulsion systems. The Skylon space plane by Abingdon-based Reaction Engines could be the first single-stage space plane to be launched into orbit. 

Earlier this month, Bolden said that the government must be ‘unafraid’ of a new future in spaceflight, that he had full confidence that the commercial sector could come up with the necessary solutions to replace the space shuttle.

The private sector certainly seems keen to deliver. As NASA maintains its 2015-2016 timeframe for developing a new vehicle for taking crew into orbit, competition in the private companies is heating up. But are they up to challenge?

Private companies argue that they can be faster, leaner and more efficient that government bodies. The space shuttle under Nasa, was perceived by some as a political toy that became more complicated and expensive over the years. Perhaps it’s time then that entrepreneurs such as Musk took the lead and taught space agencies and government exactly how it should be done.