Friday, September 2, 2016

After the Space Shuttle, What?

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The U.S. space program is veering toward an ominous black hole with the shuttle era set to end in 2010 and a replacement system still about seven years from being ready for launch. The gap will make NASA more vulnerable to funding cuts as federal budget woes mount in the years after the shuttles’ exit.

But NASA’s pain will be the private sector’s gain as the agency seeks to share its cost burden by investing more in private industry space efforts. Helping private companies develop rockets and crew capsules for missions that the shuttles currently perform will help free NASA to concentrate more fully on its goals of returning men to the moon and eventually sending a manned mission to Mars.

A first glimpse into how successful NASA’s public-private partnership — known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS — will come in 2010. At that point, two competing firms will receive word on whether they’ve passed initial muster on NASA’s tests of their ability to develop technology for practical space transportation services. The two companies — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of El Segundo, Calif., and Rocketplane Kistler of Oklahoma City — will make about $500 million if they meet set milestones. NASA then plans a second round of bidding, seeking firms that can actually supply transportation services for the space agency.
If successful, the COTS program will help make low-Earth-orbit missions cheaper, safer and more frequent, a boon to communications and other companies that now find themselves on long waiting lists to put new satellites into orbit, Moreover, it will reduce U.S. reliance on other countries’ rockets and reinvigorate the U.S. launch service industry, which has become less and less competitive globally in recent years, thanks to strict U.S. export controls.
NASA’s planned replacement for the remaining three space shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — is going to look familiar to those who grew up watching the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Borrowing from the past, the next generation of NASA-run spaceflights — dubbed the Constellation program — will have a crew capsule atop a rocket, though the capsule design known as Orion will have more-advanced communications, navigation and other technology than its 1960s forerunners. The rocket that will put Orion into orbit is called Ares I. Although much of the work is being done in-house at NASA’s research centers, private firms Boeing Co., Alliant Techsystems subsidiary ATK Thiokol of Brigham City, Utah, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., are the major contractors for Ares I. Lockheed Martin Corp. is the prime contractor for the crew vehicle.
But the Ares I rocket and the Orion module won’t be ready for launch until 2014. Even meeting that deadline will depend on the space agency’s being able to preserve its budget in the face of competing demands from defense (both during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and in rebuilding the military afterward), health care, Social Security and other pressing concerns. Until then, NASA will have to rely on Russian rockets to send its astronauts into orbit. “It’s going to be an embarrassing time for the U.S.,” says J.P. Stevens, vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association.
The next phase of Constellation will be the design and construction of a much larger launch vehicle known as the Ares V. As envisioned, the Ares V would carry with it all the additional supplies a manned lunar mission might require. Once both are in orbit, the Orion capsule would rendezvous and dock with the Ares V, and the joint spacecraft would proceed to the moon. Under the effort outlined by President Bush, resuming lunar missions would be the first step toward envisioned manned missions to Mars.
The earliest the new lunar missions could conceivably take place would be in 2020. But again, competing budget pressures are likely to push back that timetable. And politics is also intruding into the mix. “Now that Democrats have recaptured Congress, no one is interested in finding funding for Bush’s initiative,” says Alex Roland, professor of history at Duke University and a former chief historian of NASA. The odds are that, long before another American sets foot on the moon, China’s “taikonauts” will get there first. The China National Space Administration is already on track to send an unmanned mission to the moon by 2010.


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