When astronaut Ed Gibson flew to America’s first space station nearly 50 years ago, NASA still built and launched its own spacecraft. On November 16, 1973, Dr Gibson, Gerald “Jerry” Carr and William Pogue flew to Skylab onboard the Saturn 1B rocket, which was later replaced by the Space Shuttle on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. But after the shuttle was retired 10 years ago, the US space agency was left in an unfortunate predicament: with no spacecraft of its own, NASA had to pay the Russians to send crews into orbit. That is until Elon Musk entered the scene.
Starting in 2010, the NASA Commercial Crew Program sought out private enterprise that could safely and reliably fly astronauts to and from orbit.
This was critical as NASA is a major contributor to the International Space Station (ISS) but also made sense from a cost perspective.
Launching astronauts aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket came with a hefty price, which many in Washington hoped to eliminate by turning to American companies for launch vehicles.
Towards this goal, NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing the luxurious commercial contract and SpaceX earned its wings in November last year with the first operational flight of the Crew Dragon capsule.
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Dr Gibson, who was one of the six men of Astronaut Group 4 to make the cut in 1965, believes private enterprise is the way forward for NASA.
His reasoning? Cost efficiency, cost efficiency, cost efficiency.
Even when considering the early days of the US space programme – which gave birth to the Apollo Moon landing – the astronaut thinks funding and bureaucracy have always gotten in the way of progress.
A bit further back in time and Dr Gibson said the US aviation industry did not fully kick off until private enterprise was allowed to take over – and he thinks the same will be true of spaceflight.
He said: “Surprisingly, I don’t know why they worry about a couple of billion dollars here and there.
“But to bring that up, one of the good things that is happening now is the commercial.
“Elon Musk and a number of others who are being very competitive in how they do space missions – and are much more efficient from a dollar standpoint than the government doing it.
“As much as we all love the government, we recognise its shortfalls.
“There’s a lot of bureaucracy and Elon Musk doesn’t do bureaucracy, he’s the enemy of it. That’s the way it should be.”
Ultimately, the former astronaut argued, it is a natural progression for NASA to move towards the commercial model for spaceflight.
In the coming years, NASA aims to put humans back on the Moon, followed by a mission to Mars – the Artemis programme.
To meet this ambitious goal, the space agency is working on the Space Launch System (SLS) – a powerful rocket that incorporates leftover parts from the Space Shuttle.
However, SLS has been stuck in development hell since 2014 and though NASA is nearing the finishing line, many believe SpaceX’s Starship will be a much cheaper and more sensible option for the future.
The main drawback of launch vehicles like SLS is they only have one launch in them.
Rockets like Falcon 9 or Starship, in stark contrast, can launch and return to Earth in one piece, making them incredibly efficient and cost-effective.
Dr Gibson was one of the three astronauts aboard the third and final Skylab mission from November 1973 to February 1974.
During his 84 days in space, the astronaut performed three spacewalks and conducted experiments on solar physics – a topic he has written about.
Although not the first space station to spend in time orbit – that honour goes to the Soviet Union – Skylab was American’s first orbital outpost.
According to Dr Gibson, Skylab is something of a forgotten gem as interest in spaceflight waned after the Apollo programme.
However, the Skylab 4 mission had the distinction for a fairly long time of being the longest crewed spaceflight.
The astronaut is now promoting the launch of a new independent documentary called Searching for Skylab, which details the incredible history of the space station.
Between 1973 and 1974, Skylab was occupied by three different teams for a total of 24 weeks.
At the end of its mission, the spacecraft was deorbited and crashed into Australia.
Skylab was Dr Gibson’s only venture into space, as her retired soon after returning to Earth, although he rejoined NASA in 1977 and retired again in 1982.
Searching for Skylab is available to rent or buy online.