The space shuttle Atlantis has just lifted off into history as the spectacular grand finale to America’s longest-running human space program. For the past 30 years, the shuttle has inspired a countless number of men and women to become scientists and engineers, myself included. Some have suggested that the shuttle’s retirement signifies the end of America’s great space adventure. After all, NASA will be relying on Russia to get its astronauts to space for the next few years.
In actuality, the end of the shuttle presents a tantalizing market opportunity for commercial space to fill the void left by NASA. Competition among entrepreneurial companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, XCOR and Sierra Nevada Corp. will drive innovation and cost savings in both orbital and suborbital space. The government isn’t just standing by either. NASA’s Commercial Crew Development and Flight Opportunities programs are providing seed money and incentives to companies to nurture the burgeoning industry. Just as developing railroad and airline industries revolutionized life in the 19th and 20th centuries, commercializing space transport in the 21st century will signify a new chapter in the unfolding story of humanity.
Hawaii is particularly well situated to play a role in this new era. It already serves as an important tracking and control station for commercial satellites orbiting the Earth. Within the next few years, we will witness the dawn of commercial suborbital spaceflight.
At first, tourists and scientists would ride to space and back on vehicles such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Within a decade we could see point-to-point suborbital flights taking passengers or cargo from Europe to Hawaii in a small fraction of the time it takes today. This could have huge benefits for time-critical applications such as human organ transplant. The Honolulu and Kona airport runways are already capable of receiving the SpaceShipTwo, and, indeed, a Hawaii spaceport is on the drawing board. Given our unique geographic location, Hawaii may very well become a hub in a future global network of high-speed point-to-point suborbital travel.
The state’s Office of Aerospace Development works to promote Hawaii’s role in many space projects like the Hawaii Spaceflight Laboratory at the University of Hawaii and a recent agreement signed between the NASA Ames Research Center and the state. That NASA-Hawaii partnership is paving the way for a number of collaborations focused primarily on developing a lunar research park on the Big Island.
Just as the unique Hawaii landscape served as a training ground for Apollo astronauts 40 years ago, Hawaii can once again help us prepare for returning to the moon to stay. This will bring high-paying technical and scientific jobs to our state and inspire our youth to pursue such careers.
Hawaiian astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster, wisely said: "Let it be that the people who make this world run … are not the cynics, the critics, or the armchair quarterbacks. They are the adventurers, the explorers, and doers of this world. When they see a wrong or a problem, they do something about it. When they see a vacant place in our knowledge, they work to fill that void. … They are the aggressive, the self-starters, the innovative, and the imaginative of this world."
If that’s not a description of America’s innovative entrepreneurial spirit, I don’t know what is. I think Onizuka would have embraced the commercial spaceflight revolution as the natural next step in America’s exploration of space.