But with the new cash injection from the private sector, NASA was no longer solely focused on chasing the dreams that space exploration once promised. Now, they were also focused on chasing the bottom line.
NASA had its eyes focused on launching 60 shuttles a year, and, with that, becoming a completely self-paying space program. With the benefit of hindsight, most experts would agree that this goal was completely fantastical. However, the political and economic pressures of the time were very real. NASA put its team of engineers under incredible scrutiny to find the most cost-effective ways to have rockets shooting up into space almost every other day.
And that pressure; ultimately, led to tragedy.
By the 10th Challenger launch on January 28, 1986, the realities of NASA’s incredibly ambitious time schedule finally caught up to them. Despite the urgings from chief engineers to push back the timeline of the launch due to concerns over a possible o-ring malfunction, NASA continued with the launch as planned. An estimated 17 percent of Americans witnessed the deaths of Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe on live television.
The victims were far and away from being the first astronauts to die aboard a space shuttle; however, the Challenger explosion along with the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in February of 2003 led to serious overhauls in NASA as an organization.
The two tragedies created mountains of bad press and, despite their best efforts, the organization was never truly able to balance its budget. The result was that NASA shifted it’s focus to smaller un-manned spacecrafts and began allocating it’s more ambitious projects to separate entities.
The bulk of American astronauts launched into space over the last two decades have done so from a Russian launch site, and, since the early 2000s, private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have been sweeping up more and more government Commercial Resupply contracts.
Although this shift might feel like the end of NASA, it is far and away the death of public interest in space exploration. In fact, many feel that the involvement of celebrity billionaires in an industry once gatekept by nation states has rekindled the inescapable curiosity that people all over the world first felt when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
The new space race is about more than just government contracts. These industrious few have dreamt up a future of space tourism where even regular Americans can travel the solar system. And this isn’t a pipe dream. Since the year 2000, venture capitalists have put roughly $13.3 billion into space projects. Why? Because they truly believe that they are witnessing the birth of a multi-trillion dollar market.
Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos have done more than bring a little mainstream appeal to an industry that, for so many years, has been restricted to an esoteric cult of space nerds. They’ve also brought technological advances.
In December of 2015, SpaceX achieved the first propulsive landing of an orbital rocket and has since proven the technology with 20 successful launches last year and 18 the year before that. Bezos’ Blue Origin has also made headlines by creating a new engine for the United Launch Alliance, and having an active lunar landing program. And, despite a tragic crash in 2014, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo reached the lower edge of suborbital space last December.