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It has now been two years since the last Space Shuttle mission ended (July 21, 2011). Since then, the United States has not had its own capability to launch astronauts into space. To my knowledge neither President Obama nor any high-level administration official has discussed the topic publicly in more than three years. Even going to the NASA website for Human Space Missions and clicking on Future Exploration Plans, one does not easily find a clearly-stated plan with any kind of timeline. NASA released some details of the planned Space Launch System in September 2011, but at least I haven't seen any major updates or detailed timeline released since then.

This leads me to my question: What is the United States' current plan to get back to launching people into space? Furthermore, when can we expect the United States to regain such capability?

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  • $\begingroup$ Current plan? Very simple: Outsource to Russia. I'm sure others will give you answers with more distant, though more domestic-based plans. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jul 25 '13 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ Fair point! But I am, of course, looking for details on the US plans to re-gain a home-grown capability... $\endgroup$ – robguinness Jul 25 '13 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ Do you want what the government is promising to the public, or what NASA says is technically feasable? $\endgroup$ – RhysW Jul 25 '13 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ Man-rating the Dragon is one thing I'd dearly want to happen. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Jul 25 '13 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ RhysW: Both! :-) $\endgroup$ – robguinness Jul 25 '13 at 10:10
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The US plan is to buy launches for LEO, and develop its own capsule and launcher for harder missions.

The options are Soyuz to the ISS, and if any of them work; SpaceX's Dragon, Boeing's CST-100, and SNC's Dream Chaser.

With the COTS program, NASA solicited commercial offerings to provide cargo to the space station, trying to wean itself from reliance on Progress/ATV/HTV missions, or at least have their own alternative.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have developed launchers (Falcon 9 and Antares) and carriers of cargo (Dragon and Cygnus) for that need. SpaceX has launched 3 times to the station (as of this writing) with 10 more booked. Orbital is set for its first launches by the end of 2013. Dragon is unique in that it can return meaningful amounts of cargo, Cygnus will burn up on reentry.

For crew capabilities instead of following through with the COTS-D option, the program became the CCiCAP and SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada got funding to develop manned products.

SpaceX has said it's Dragon design was meant to be manned from the get go, and just needed primarily an abort system, which they are using the CCiCAP program to develop. (Pusher type using Super Draco thrusters, which are planned for propulsive landing in non-abort cases). They have a pad abort scheduled for the end of 2013 from a test stand (Why waste a Falcon 9 core on an abort test?) and a full up abort midflight later the following year.

Boeing's CST-100 has passed through the various design review phases NASA has expected and making progress. Same for Dream Chaser. A test model is in the process of being tested for landing tests (Dragged by a pickup truck along the runway, to test maneuvering and its front skid (instead of a wheel)).

NASA is working on the Orion capsule to be launched by the SLS (or maybe Delta 4 - Heavy) and is meant for longer missions. None of the commercial alternates are really designed for long missions (Greater than the 2-3 days to the ISS, and day or two to return), whereas Orion is designed for flights to the moon, L1, asteroid missions, or potentially more. There are all sorts of major differences between a 2-3 day mission to get to the ISS then dock, vs dozens to hundreds of days on your own. Things like life support, radiation shielding, power, and just plain endurance.

Thus the US manned space flight plan is let commercial companies do service to LEO, where clearly there is a market if three competitors believe there is enough business to compete. For the 'hard stuff' that is not commercially available, develop it through NASA.

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    $\begingroup$ @robguinness Any timeline is a total WAG. The CCiCAP is aiming for a 2017 timeframe'ish first launch to ISS, with maybe a company flight earlier. (I.e. Not NASA astronauts but company employes). Orion has a 2017 unmanned test flight in 2017 that is probably unlikely to happen. Everything is too far out to make any realistic estimate. $\endgroup$ – geoffc Jul 25 '13 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ How is it that Apollo and Shuttle managed to meet their stated development schedules? $\endgroup$ – robguinness Jul 29 '13 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ @robguinness Shuttle in no way made its development schedule. (Witness the Skylab deorbit, since shuttle was not ready in time to reboost). And trying to meet deadlines was considered one of the causes of the Challenger incident. As for Apollo, they had fundamentally unlimited money to throw at it. $\endgroup$ – geoffc Jul 29 '13 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ See testimony from Bob Thompson, Shuttle Program Manager from 1970 to 1981, in the CAIB Report, Appendix H.8: "Again, one of the big myths on the Shuttle is that it was way over budget. Thatʼs an absolute myth. In December of ʻ71, when Jim Fletcher and George Low went to San Clemente to present the final recommendation to President Nixon, we prepared a letter that George and Jim took with them, a one-page letter. That letter said that we felt we could build the configuration that you now know as the Shuttle for a total cost of $5.15 billion in the purchasing power of the 1971 dollar..." $\endgroup$ – robguinness Jul 30 '13 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ "...but that it would take another billion dollars of contingency funding over and above that to handle the contingencies that always develop in a program like this. So you need to budget 6.15 billion in the purchasing power of the ʻ71 dollar and that we could build it and fly it by 1979 if everything went perfectly, but the $1 billion and 18 months ought to be planned in the program because thatʼs probably what will really happen and weʼll probably fly it in early ʻ81. That was in the document." $\endgroup$ – robguinness Jul 30 '13 at 14:52

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