What Will Happen When Astronauts No Longer Fly On The Space Shuttle?

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Dragon Spacecraft (Image &copy SpaceX)Dragon Spacecraft (Image &copy SpaceX)

Dragon Spacecraft (Image © SpaceX, used with permission)

There are only five Space Shuttle flights left on NASA’s schedule. Since 1982, astronauts have traveled into low-Earth orbit aboard the workhorse of NASA’s space program. With the exception of the Hubble repair mission earlier this year, the remaining flights have all been focused on adding to and upgrading the International Space Station. However, as it stands, after 2010 the United States will need to look for a new way to push humans up Earth’s gravity well.

NASA’s Constellation program is hard at work with development of the Orion. Designed to serve as a vehicle for the trip to the ISS and to lunar orbit, Orion and the entire Constellation is currently under review by the Obama administration. In October of this year, the Augustine commission delivered a set of options to the President that will help shape the future of American human space flight. By the commission’s estimate, Orion will at best be ready in 2016, leaving the US with a six year gap in operations.

Six years is a long drought. So what alternate options are available?

In addition to the shuttle, the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft have been regular visitors to the ISS. And in the coming US space flight gap, NASA is looking at $51 million USD per person for any trips on Soyuz. In the past two years, the Europeans and the Japanese have developed remotely-operated transfer vehicles. However, the new ships are currently only cargo-rated.

In December of 2008, NASA awarded two American companies contracts to transfer supplies to the ISS, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Of the two, SpaceX is pushing hard to become the first private company to develop a human-rated spacecraft that can successfully deliver astronauts to the space station.

SpaceX plans to put the Dragon spacecraft through its paces in 2010. In addition to a cargo /human rated ship, the new rocket company will also be simultaneously validating the Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket. Sporting nine of SpaceX’s homegrown Merlin engines, the same that powered the Falcon 1, the F9 is currently prepping for a launch early next year from a refurbished Launch Complex 40 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

I feel very lucky to be alive during a time of exciting developments in spaceflight and the new century has been a boon for private space enterprises:

  • Just a few years ago, Scaled Composites had a huge success with Space Ship One which became the first privately manned spacecraft
  • SpaceX had the first private rocket to orbit the Earth with the Falcon 1
  • Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis I became the first expandable space habitat technology on orbit
  • SpaceX’s Dragon is setup to be the first privately built ship to dock with the space station
  • Not to mention a number of other private ventures currently under development

At the rate the industry is moving, it appears that one day soon, the term astronaut may not just be associated with governmental organizations.

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