NASA devolved into an agency without a mission
Special to the Evansville Courier & Press
July 24, 2005

Among my prized possessions, tucked away in a corner of our basement, is a dramatic 16-by-24-inch framed photographic
image of the very first space shuttle launch on April 12, 1981. It was the first and only shuttle launch in which the enormous
space plane was sent into low Earth orbit with the external fuel tank painted white.

Back then, like so many other Americans, I was overjoyed at the mere thought of resumption of manned-space flight
efforts after a several-year hiatus. We thought - and were told repeatedly by NASA officials - that the new, reusable
spacecraft with a payload bay the size of a school bus was precisely the right vehicle at precisely the right time to extend
this nation's public aspirations into the realm of low -Earth orbit and beyond. This, of course, was long before we realized that
all the optimistic promises made by NASA bureaucrats and their chorus of supporters would never be kept. Some
$145 billion later, after 113 shuttle missions, two very public and embarrassing shuttle crew disasters and millions
of man-hours of congressional hearings, mission redefinition and agonizing hand-wringing at all levels,
we are left with an extremely expensive, oversized and outdated spacecraft, one of which could not get off
 the ground due to a faulty fuel sensor.

Enter aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, Microsoft multibillionaire Paul Allen and a small, merry band of dreamers
with an outfit called Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a division of the firm Scaled Composites, which operates out
of a couple of hangars near an airstrip in the middle of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. In November in
St. Louis, this determined team of privately financed material experts, computer scientists and aviation explorers was
awarded the first $10 million Ansari X Prize for designing, building and flying a reusable spacecraft with room and
carrying capacity for several passengers into the black sky of space and back twice within a two-week period.

The ingenious launch system utilizes a two-stage system: a carrier aircraft called the White Knight, and a second-stage
rocket plane called SpaceShipOne. The White Knight is a manned, twin-turbojet research aircraft designed to provide a
high-altitude airborne launch platform for other high-altitude vehicles. The companion spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, is a
three-place, high-altitude research rocket designed for suborbital flights. It has the unique feature of a pneumatic-actuated "feather"
that in essence folds the control surfaces to a stable, high-drag shape to allow for "carefree" atmospheric re-entry.

On Sept. 29, Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Melvill sat in the tiny spaceplane slung beneath the White Knight
to an altitude of 48,000 feet. At the appropriate time, the two aircraft separated, and Melvill fired the rocket engine,
propelling him in a harrowing corkscrew trajectory up to an altitude of 337,500 feet, just under 64 miles. A few days later.
On Oct. 4, Brian Binnie piloted the same spacecraft to an amazing altitude of 367,442 feet n some 69.6 miles n breaking the
previous unofficial manned aircraft altitude record set by research pilot Joseph A. Powers in August 1963 in an X-15 rocket plane.

Shortly before Mojave Aerospace achieved the X Prize milestone, British industrialist Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Media
and aviation fame announced that his new company, Virgin Galactic, has licensed the technology developed by Mojave
and will soon be developing a fleet of these small, reusable rocket planes to be built by Scaled Composites in an effort to
offer affordable commercial space travel to passengers some time in 2007. The price for one of the first several missions
will be nearly $200,000 per passenger, but the price will no doubt go down as the program moves forward. There are also
rumors that the group may eventually develop a permanent, manned spaceport hotel, similar to the one featured in the movie
"2001: A Space Odyssey. "

Meanwhile, back at Cape Canaveral, NASA's future remains tied to an enormous, outdated space plane that costs an average
of $1.3 billion per launch with no expendable launch vehicles on the drawing boards and no concrete goals for exploration beyond
return flights to the International Space Station. Redesignated an "experimental" vehicle once again in the wake of the Columbia
catastrophe, the agency continues to refuse to consider the creation of lower-cost shuttle alternatives, and no longer functions
as a test bed for cutting-edge research and development.

Over the years, NASA has had numerous success stories that have been well-documented. However, during the past
several years, the agency seems to have survived as a function of congressional will and bureaucratic inertia. Barring a clear-cut
definition of future goals and objectives n or any serious consideration of returning to the moon or a voyage to Mars n NASA
seems to have devolved into an agency without a mission, supporting a vehicle without a destination.

The recent successes of other privately financed space ventures demonstrate that there are visionaries outside the strictures of the
government-financed space program who have decidedly different ideas about the future. As their efforts move forward, they, not
NASA, may ultimately determine the dynamics and dimensions of mankind's continued exploration and understanding of the
ocean of space.
David Coker of Evansville can be reached by e-mail at