Shuttle Age Over, What Now?

The Space Shuttle Atlantis landed this morning at 5:56am EDT on July 21, 2011, bringing to a close the halcyon days of Mankind’s exploration of space.

Okay, I suppose it is a bit too harsh to say that this end’s the human exploration of space. The point is simply that, with the space shuttles retired, the only manned space program currently active is Russia’s. Now, NASA will have to use Russia’s Soyuz capsules to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

40 years ago we were walking on the Moon. Today we’re… well, we’re pretty much doing nothing. You can blame Congress, the war(s) in the Middle East, the current and/or past Presidents, NASA administration, or whoever you want, but it really does not matter at this point. Honestly, I put my blame on Congress (every Congress for the past 40 years) as Congress passes the annual budgets. NASA receives a paltry 15 to 20 billion a year, while the military receives 700 billion a year. Were it up to me, I’d move about 300 billion out of the defense budget and put it into NASA’s budget. Were it up to me (which, of course, it’s not).

So what is the future of NASA? Or more importantly, what is the future of humanity’s exploration of space?

To be sure, it is not all doom-and-gloom. Looking at NASA’s budge summary for 2012 and beyond, it appears that they are shifting a great deal of funding to the development of new space technologies, to supporting the ISS, and to sponsoring commercial space flight. The exploration budget also goes up a bit, although it is in support of robotic (not human) exploration of space.

Quoting from the 2012 NASA budget estimate overview document:

In FY 2012, NASA will continue architecture planning for a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) capable of taking human explorers to distant locations throughout the inner solar system. The Space Launch System (SLS) Program will develop the heavy lift vehicle that will launch the MPCV, other modules, and cargo for these missions. NASA will invest nearly $3 billion in FY 2012 on MPCV and SLS, combined. NASA will also continue to stimulate the development of commercial crew and cargo transportation systems to the ISS and other future destinations. The Administration supports enabling this new industrial market, as it will provide a realistic solution to the challenges of acquiring affordable and reliable access to space.

So NASA is still in the process of designing a new crew capsule that is still many years from actual completion. The oversight, of course, is the fact that that new crew capsule should have been designed and ready to launch prior to the retirement of the space shuttles, not many years after the fact. You can just blame Congress for that one.

Currently, the private company SpaceX appears to be the leading contender for providing a ground-to-orbit or ground-to-ISS reusable space capsule within the next few years. Called the Dragon (see details on the SpaceX page),  it will be launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and it has already been launched into orbit (unmanned) and recovered successfully. NASA itself is also developing the larger Orion capsule, which is being designed to carryout a verity of roles, including access to the ISS and other objects in orbit, travel to Near-Earth Objects (such as asteroids), and eventually to transport explorers to Mars (and/or the Moon as well if the President and Congress release that it really is important for us to return to, and establish a permanent presence, on the Moon).

But, for now, America has no manned space program. Perhaps we will again… in 2013… or in 2014… or in 2015… or in 2016…

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