There's been plenty of chatter recently about President Obama's space plan and the effect it will have on NASA, a manned-Moon or even Mars mission, and the immediate future of US space travel in general. I'm lucky enough to have an aerospace engineer for a friend who is much more knowledgeable and has a much better grasp of the pulse of the industry right now. With next week's expected launch of the privately owned SpaceX's new rocket, I thought it might be nice to air out some of his thoughts on the new space plan.
On the retirement of the space shuttle and its effect on related jobs:
The people who complain about losing their jobs because the shuttle program is ending dont really have much to complain about since they've known for 5+ years that this was going to happen in 2010. More than most other people who lose jobs, and there's really no way around it -- the shuttle has to be retired, and their jobs go with it.
Giving "local" space missions to privately owned companies:
I really like the idea of giving up the low earth orbit missions to private companies. People complain a lot about America losing the edge to other countries, but isn't capitalism and entrepreneurship our strong suit? Those companies (Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and like 10 others) are ready to go solve the problem of efficiently getting to the ISS [International Space Station] cheaper than their competitors. Its just too bad we didn't task them with this 5 years ago, so we don't have the gap in between the shuttle and their solution.
And on NASA's possible role in the future:
[NASA is] still needed, just not for the low-earth orbit stuff. It is immensely more expensive to go to the Moon, much less Mars, and those [private] companies don't have the ability to do something like that. NASA's job should be to lead the way into the frontier, show that it can be done, and come up with crazy awesome inventions like Tang and Velcro along the way.
[Note: he actually said the part about Tang and Velcro]
So what's the future of American space travel? It looks as though it's hard to come up with concrete projections right now, but next week's launch is just the first step, and its success or failure will probably give us no better idea than we already have right now.