On the morning of March 11th, NASA’s new boosters for its Space Launch System rocket passed their first major test. Orientated horizontally, the boosters fired successfully for two minutes, vividly casting fiery patterns within the waking light of the Utah test zone. One day, these boosters will be orientated vertically and attached to a fully constructed SLS rocket. This time, two minutes of thrust will create a different visual spectacle: a spaceship piercing upwards through the Florida air, taking a manned Orion capsule to an asteroid or even Mars.
NASA is clearly stating that the SLS is its future, but at the same time, the organisation seems unable to escape its own history. Fundamentally, these rocket boosters are heavily altered versions of those used in the terminated Space Shuttle program. NASA’s organisational structure hasn’t changed much since the space race either: communication and transportation within a fragmented nationwide network of bases slows down progress on an already ambitious goal.
While NASA ended its Space Shuttle program, the private space industry began its monumental rise. A leading company is SpaceX, which was founded in 2002. Their pace is simply breakneck: by 2012 they had already docked their Dragon spaceship with the ISS. NASA seeded capital to SpaceX to help them develop, and while this may seem like a conflict of interests, the logic is very easy to understand. It costs NASA about $70 million per astronaut for a trip to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz rocket. SpaceX believes they can offer NASA the same service for just $20 million dollars.
Now, SpaceX is moving from a space cargo and passenger service to becoming more interested in exploration and Mars. A crucial part of NASA’s SLS future is the Orion capsule. The module fits four astronauts, and it’s NASA’s first capsule that can dock itself automatically with the ISS. SpaceX have their own designs: their Dragon V2 can take seven crew members, and the interior is defined by sculptural shapes portrayed in futuristic golds and whites, mood lit with purple LEDs. It too can automatically dock with stations, but it also has 3D printed engines that allow it to vertically glide back down onto land after a mission – a process rather more elegant than Orion’s less graceful splashdowns.
There’s a sense that people are seeing these private companies as the true pioneers of space exploration instead of NASA. SpaceX doesn’t use as much tax money, and has successfully created an excitement that has been absent since the end of the Apollo missions. Currently, MarsOne is taking the steps to build a human colony on Mars – something NASA has never done. Yet, this is not because of governmental ineffectiveness. A government agency like NASA have a duty to their citizens, and would only place a population on another planet knowing that they could get them home. NASA may move slower, but I think I trust them more.