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With Atlantis landing, an era ends. Are private space firms ready for duty?

The Atlantis landing just before 6 a.m. Thursday marks the end of the US space shuttle program – and the transition to private firms as the cargo carriers to space. Perhaps they'll ferry people, too.

By Staff writer / July 21, 2011

Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday, July 21. The landing of Atlantis marks the end of NASA's 30 year space shuttle program.

Don Emmert/AP

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With the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space-shuttle program shifting from missions to memories, the US human spaceflight program is undergoing a historic change as the agency turns over its transport service to and from the space station to commercial rocketmakers and focuses instead on sending human explorers deeper into the solar system.

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The shift from government venture to commercial carriers is a familiar, often uncomfortable, transition.

Historians note that transcontinental railroads initially required decades of subsidies because banks and business tycoons east of the Mississippi refused to invest in a venture for which they saw no obvious markets. Who lived in the "Great American Desert" and beyond, after all?

After World War I, passage of the Kelly Act – which required the US Post Office to begin shipping mail via privately operated airplanes – triggered the establishment and growth of airlines.

The commercial sector's emerging role in human spaceflight is following those historical patterns, proponents of the shift say. If private industry can achieve the goal of driving down the cost of reaching Earth orbit, the payoff could be just as significant over the long term as railroads or airplane travel – this time for sectors ranging from manufacturing to mining to energy.

"If we choose to take the right steps, there is every reason to believe that 10 years from now multiple private entities can be taking payloads and passengers on a for-profit basis to suborbital space and to orbital space," says Jeff Greason, cofounder and chief executive officer of XCOR Aerospace, based in Mojave, Calif., and a member of a panel President Obama appointed in 2009 to provide options for the US human-spaceflight program.

"And there's every reason to believe that 10 years from now there will be destinations to go to," he adds. Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, he notes, is building and testing on-orbit habitat modules that can be joined to make structures ranging from orbiting hotels to small lab complexes that companies or governments can lease for research.

To be sure, not everyone is convinced.

Critics – including powerful members of Congress – counter that the changes at NASA are putting the agency's human-spaceflight eggs in a fragile basket, woven from companies that are largely untested. If this effort fails, NASA will be stuck buying ever-more-expensive seats on Russian rockets to get US astronauts to and from the station, at least through the end of the decade.

Moreover, business plans for these companies are based on shaky assumptions, critics say, often voicing skepticism as to whether markets really will emerge. Even some people excited about the transition say many unknowns remain.

"A lot of analysis is predicated on back-of-the-envelope thinking," says Roger Launius, former NASA historian and now senior curator in the space-history division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.


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