When the last Shuttle mission touched down in 2011, America’s manned space program reached a nadir. For the first time in half a century, the nation found itself without the means to launch a human being into orbit. The country couldn’t even send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), the orbital laboratory whose construction we’d already committed $70 billion to. And so, in one of the most darkly ironic twists in aerospace history, NASA was forced to rely on its old rivals, the Russians, to launch its crews into space.
But from failure comes change, and today a new era of space exploration is dawning. NASA’s monopoly on American space travel has been swept aside in favor of a new philosophy of commercial competition. Where once the Shuttle reigned alone, a whole array of new rockets and spacecraft are coming on line. We find ourselves emerging from a dark ages to what may well be a new golden age, with entrepreneurs bringing novel ideas and approaches to a once-stagnant game. “It’s the most exciting time that the space industry has seen since the early days of Apollo,” says Andrew Nelson, chief operation officer of space-plane manufacturer XCOR Aerospace. “Everything is new. It’s really cool.”
My feature on America’s new dawn in space is the cover story of the December 2013 Popular Mechanics, available on newsstands now.