Because the Space Shuttle has been the public face of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for decades, its last mission is about to bring new focus to next-generation projects that are far more dependent on private-sector aerospace companies.
In particular, NASA is allowing the private sector to take over much of the domain once served by the shuttle — the so-called “space taxi services” that operate in the Lower Earth Orbit, LEO, that ranges upward for 200 miles.
In the near future, private companies will be ferrying astronauts and cargo back and forth from the International Space Station. NASA will pay for its astronauts to be aboard.
Leaving the LEO missions to the private sector will allow NASA once again to focus on deep space missions, the kind that carry astronauts, robots, and other scientific equipment to farther reaches of the galaxy.
"Our destinations for humans beyond Earth remain ambitious,” NASA Director Charles Bolden said in a speech at the National Press Club in early July. “They include: the moon, asteroids, and Mars. The debate is not if we will explore, but how we'll do it."
With shuttle flights now almost routine, NASA wants to tackle more difficult challenges.
"We have to get out of the business of owning and operating low-Earth orbit transportation systems and hand that off to the private sector, with sufficient oversight to ensure the safety of our astronauts,” added Bolden.
Private aerospace companies have always built U.S. spacecraft according to NASA specifications, but the agency has begun to loosen its grip, says David Klaus, a former NASA shuttle launch controller and professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado.
“In the past they provided direct oversight and control,” says Klaus. “Going forward, I think its role will be more providing insight and guidance, providing the grand vision.”
Since its inception in 1958, the space agency has evolved with each U.S. president.
In 2004, President George W. Bush announced the pursuit of a return mission to the moon by 2020, and redirected a great amount of NASA’s budget toward that goal. But the so-called Constellation program, plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays, was largely cancelled by President Obama in April 2010.
In a June 6 interview with a Cleveland television station, President Obama addressed his plan: “What’s that next big leap?” he asked. “That’s exactly part of our plan to make sure we’re researching new fuel, new mechanisms to allow for long-term space flight. There’s some additional technological leaps that we have to make. We’re using the same technologies we were using back in the 60s, in some cases.”
On May 24, NASA announced that one cornerstone of the Bush space program would not be scrapped. The Orion space capsulethat Lockheed Martin has been working on since 2006 will be America’s next manned spacecraft, they say, salvaging $5 billion already spent.
The capsule will take four astronauts at a time on 21-day trips to yet-to-be-determined destinations that could include nearby asteroids, the moon, and eventually Mars. The 23-ton capsule will be attached to a rocket yet to be designed and will land in the Pacific Ocean with a parachute, like the Apollo capsules.
"We're nearing a decision on the heavy lift rocket … and will announce that soon," exlained Bolden.
“I’m not surprised it’s still the best solution,” says Larry Price, deputy director of the Orion program for Lockheed Martin. “It’s small and light, flexible and capable. With its deep space capability, it can provide maintenance for deep space instruments like the Hubble telescope.”
Price says Lockheed plans low-earth orbital manned flights for Orion — renamed the Multi-PurposeCrew Vehicle — in two years, flights around the moon by 2017, and plans to explore asteroids by 2019.
The Orion announcement seemingly seals NASA’s plans for manned spaceflight into deep space, but the new private-sector initiative for lower earth orbits has spawned a furious competition.
SNC has been developing the Dream Chaser for six years. Put atop an existing Atlas V rocket, it is designed to take seven people to the International Space Station and return them, along with precious cargo. Its first flights are scheduled for 2014, with regular service planned the next year, says Mark Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems.
The Russian Soyuz vehicle, which will be used to service the space station exclusively once the Shuttle is retired, has minimal cargo space.
With the various ongoing science experiments in the 6-7 laboratory modules bolted onto the station, computer data can be transferred down to earth, “but it can’t bring any actual material back,” he says.
The Dream Chaser, designed to land on any airport runway, can fit more people and transport, either way, more cargo than Soyuz.
“We have all elements in the U.S. to do the same thing – people, companies, infrastructure,” says Sirangelo. “It’s about U.S. jobs. It’s a vibrant economic argument. Private space companies in Russia are hiring people right now.”
NASA's 1,100 full-time Shuttle employees will be transferred to other programs, but the 5,000 contractor employees, down from 14,000 five years ago, are out of jobs.
In the next six months,the United Launch Alliance – the five year old joint venture between U.S. space stalwarts Lockheed Martin and Boeing – is scheduled to launch four NASA spacecraft throughout the solar system. Their missions range from climate and weather, to life on other planets and the origins of the solar system. Last month, the Aquarius mission took orbit, representing ULA’s 51st successful launch. It will attempt to measure ocean salinity from space, to provide new insights into how it influences weather and climate.
In late November, ULA will launch the Mars Space Laboratory, five times larger and 10 times heavier than previous Mars Rovers. It’s scheduled to land on Mars in August 2012 and will attempt to further assess whether Mars can support human life.
The joint venture uses new generations of Lockheed’s Atlas and Boeing’s Delta expendable launch vehicles used in U.S. space missions for more than 50 years.
NASA also has committed $500 million to two private companies to begin unmanned cargo shuttles to the International Space Station.
SpaceX, a Hawthorne, Calif.-based company, and Orbital Sciences, located near Washington, D.C., should begin the U.S. share of cargo flights within six to 18 months. Technical challenges and production delays have forced NASA to put some of that cargo onto the last shuttle flight.
Adm. Craig Steidle, named in April as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, sees a bright future for both NASA and “the new entrants to the community, such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.”
“This is a new twist, the moving forward with the more commercial part of spaceflight,” Steidle said. “We believe NASA now has an all-encompassing program that is not just a moon race but a sustained vision for space exploration that will spur a lot of technological development and create jobs.”
As NASA director Bolden put it: “We are in the early days of our next chapter into human space flight. We’re on the ground floor of the next frontier.”