Being from Texas, one of my favorite childhood memories was visiting NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Back then, it represented everything a kid could love -- the possibility that we could all be astronauts one day, that the universe was boundless, and that space was a blank black canvas for the imagination. The last time I visited NASA was back in 2010, and although the center had changed dramatically, the awe of standing next to the Saturn V rocket that first took the astronauts to the moon remained unchanged.
Therefore, it saddens me to write this article about the decline of a once formidable American institution, which is now closed on its 55th birthday, thanks to a government shutdown caused by partisan bickering.
I believe we could be at a crossroads in space exploration -- is NASA doomed to fade away, or can private companies and shrewd entrepreneurs take over where the government left off?
Happy birthday, NASA
NASA was founded on Oct. 1, 1958, by President Eisenhower on the dream that the exploration of space should be "devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all humankind," according to the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act.
The moon landing in 1969 marked the apex of NASA's popularity. The final manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17, was followed by Skylab, America's first space station, which remained in orbit between 1973 and 1979. Then came the space shuttle program, which started in 1981 and captured the imagination of schoolchildren all across America with televised shuttle launches.
The Challenger disaster in 1986 broke our hearts, but the program persevered, apparently a testament to the resilience of the American spirit.
Unfortunately, even the American spirit can be broken by a broken government. NASA's budget, which had steadily declined after the moon landing, was dramatically cut in recent years and started severely limiting NASA's options. President George W. Bush decided to end the space shuttle program after the 2003 Columbia disaster, freeing up the $4 billion spent on the shuttle program for a new mission to the moon and Mars. The last shuttle mission was completed in 2011, and the iconic spacecraft was retired.
President Obama eventually scrapped the moon mission, opting to send a mission to an asteroid with an eventual goal of reaching Mars with the aid of private companies. That idea raises an interesting question -- would the space program evolve much faster if the government simply handed over the keys to the space program to private companies?
Will these entrepreneurs be NASA's salvation?
Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson are two of the top entrepreneurs who could advance space travel much faster than NASA ever could by itself.
Musk, the CEO of electric automaker Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), is also the CEO of SpaceX, a space transport company that produced the reusable Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX also produced the Dragon spacecraft, which is used with the Falcon 9.
Last May, SpaceX used the Dragon to become the first privately owned company to send an unmanned cargo payload to the International Space Station. SpaceX currently holds contracts with NASA, private-sector companies, overseas government agencies, and the American military. Musk is also planning its first manned Dragon flight in 2015, and a robotic mission to Mars with NASA in 2018.
Branson, on the other hand, is best known as the charismatic hot-air balloon-flying chairman of Virgin Group. Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the goal of providing space flights for space tourists, space science missions, and small satellites.
Its wholly owned subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, was founded by Branson and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, the founder of Scaled Composites (now owned by Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC)).
Rutan is the brains behind Virgin Galactic's main project, SpaceShipTwo, a space tourism rocket plane unveiled in 2009 for short trips above the Earth's atmosphere. The SpaceShipTwo is carried up to a high altitude by another plane, the White Knight Two, and then released to "push off" above the atmosphere.
Tickets cost $250,000 apiece with a $20,000 deposit -- but the company reports that 640 people have now signed up, including Stephen Hawking, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. In addition to space flights, Virgin Galactic is also working on an orbital launcher, LauncherOne, that can send small cargo payloads and satellites into orbit.
Meanwhile, Rutan also teamed up with Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, to start Stratolaunch Systems, which is producing a high-altitude plane even larger than the White Knight Two. The new plane can directly launch smaller versions of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets from the plane at a high altitude. This advance could result in substantially cheaper rocket launches, since they would require less fuel to enter space.
We can still dream of being astronauts
Although the government shutdown has cast a gloomy shadow over NASA and the future of the space program, we can still dream of being astronauts, thanks to private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Stratolaunch Systems.
Whereas students of the past might have looked to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Sally Ride for inspiration, students of the current generation might also credit entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Sir Richard Branson, and Burt Rutan as the visionaries who kept the dream of space travel alive.
Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Northrop Grumman and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.