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Viewport: Good News From Space

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"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Air & Space.

If you want to feel optimistic about the U.S. space program, read the article on page 34 about the work NASA is doing to expand the use of the International Space Station. Getting more private-sector participation in space research has been a difficult balancing act, and after years of work, the public-private partnership is starting to succeed.

The space agency and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, were created to do fundamental research, then pass along their results to the aerospace industry. Just as the NACA of the 1930s developed airfoil shapes that any manufacturer could use on its airplane wing, today NASA has created space hardware and techniques that are available to university and corporate researchers. The “plug-and-play” standardization of equipment that has been cleverly advanced by NanoRacks, the company profiled in this issue, was initiated by NASA in 2001 with EXPRESS racks. EXPRESS is one of those infamous NASA acronyms, but what it stands for—Expedite the Processing of Experiments to Space Station—was an early step in making the space station user-friendly.

With government funding, there are strings attached. If NASA pays for it, then it has to be good for the world, and everybody gets it. Those conditions can impede the development of space commerce because they impose a lengthy review process and make it tough for a private company to gain a competitive advantage. Today NASA and the signatories of the Space Act agreements are transforming the way government and industry interact. Private companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, developed spacecraft with NASA support but sought private financing as well. They now sell cargo delivery services, with NASA acting as a customer rather than a competitor. The agency found that it was less expensive to help private industry develop its own vehicles and to buy services from those developers than to continue the space shuttle program.

Freed from running the delivery service to the station, NASA can focus on exploration programs to take astronauts beyond Earth orbit. It has become clear over the past decade that the agency will not have the budget to do both.

There’s more good news in the “expedited processing” for space station experiments: The little boxes that NanoRacks provides are easy for students to use. Through a national competition, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education has made it possible for students, funded by their communities, to create experiments and fly them in space. This may be the most important development for the future of the U.S. space program. Many young people may be inspired to become future space travelers and scientists because of this experience. We look forward to welcoming the student experimenters next July when they will present their findings at the National Air and Space Museum.

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