The New Space Age
Is space really the final frontier?
With the Obama Administration's cancelation of NASA's Constellation Program, in early 2010, the future of American manned spaceflight looked pretty bleak. The Constellation Program had been initiated by the Bush Administration in 2005, as a follow-up to the Space Transportation System (Space Shuttle). Following Columbia's fiery break-up during re-entry, in 2003, with the loss of the vehicle and crew, it was decided to retire the Shuttle fleet upon the completion of the International Space Station (ISS). It was hoped, by then, that a new spacecraft would be operational to service the ISS.
The Constellation Program actually consisted of two large, somewhat independent projects. First, the Orion Program included the development of the larger Apollo-like Orion crew capsule, a service module for the Orion spacecraft, and the Altair lunar lander. The second project, called Ares (after the Greek god of war) was to develop a smaller launch vehicle, Ares I, for taking the Orion spacecraft and a 7-man crew to the ISS, in low earth orbit, and a heavy lift launch vehicle, Ares V, for future lunar flights.
The Obama Administration cancelled Constellation because of significant cost overruns and schedule slippage. By late 2009, the earliest the Orion/Ares spacecraft would be operational would be 2015, or 2016. It would mean that the only access to space by US astronauts, until the first manned flight of the Orion, would be on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The Obama Administration decided to continue the Bush Administration's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which provided financial incentives for private corporations to develop cost effective systems for transferring materiel and personnel to and from the ISS. The idea was to reduce the cost and time to develop these new crew and cargo transfer spacecraft by taking the task away from NASA, and turning it over to the private sector. NASA would then be free to concentrate on what it does best, space exploration. At the top of Obama's list for NASA was a new, revolutionary, propulsion system that would potentially reduce the travel time to Mars.
There are a number of companies that are vying for NASA crew and cargo transfer contracts. Lockheed-Martin, which had been developing the Orion spacecraft has continued without pause, using it's own funds, with the hope of ultimate government reimbursement. They claim that they will have a lighter, less complicated, vehicle ready for an unmanned test flight by 2013. They intend to maintain the schedule, in place before the project's cancellation, with a manned launch in 2016.
One of the most promising entries into the field of commercial spacecraft development is the company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), of Hawthorne, California. Founded by South African Elon Musk (founder of PayPal) in 2002, SpaceX began the development of the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 Launch vehicles. In December 2008, SpaceX was awarded a $1.6B contract under the COTS program to build and launch twelve Falcon 9 vehicles with a reusable cargo spacecraft. SpaceX began the development of the Dragon spacecraft, initially to be used as a cargo ship to resupply the ISS, but with the ability to be reconfigured as a manned vehicle carrying a total of 7 crew and passengers. In December 2010, the Dragon became the first commercially launched spacecraft to be recovered from orbit. The first unmanned flight to the ISS may occur in 2011.
A recent entry into the field is the Boeing CST-100. This spacecraft looks much like the Orion capsule, but is slightly smaller, although still larger than the Apollo spacecraft. Boeing is drawing on decades of experience in the design and building of spacecraft and launch vehicles. The CST-100 will also carry a compliment of 7 and will be reusable for up to ten missions. It will be lifted to low earth orbit by existing launch vehicles, such as the Delta IV, or the Atlas V. Given a "go-ahead" now, Boeing claims the CST-100 could be operational in 2015.
Boeing is working closely with Bigelow Aerospace, the developer and manufacturer of inflatable orbital structures. The goal is to provide tourist destinations on orbit. Boeing will supply the means of getting up to, and back down from, Bigelow built and launched inflatable hotels. The company's founder is Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suite hotel chain. In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow successfully orbited prototypes of larger inflatable modules with Russian launch vehicles. Bigelow has plans for a commercial space station and has entered into an agreement with six European and Asian nations, to develop this concept. The plans are to have the commercial space station on orbit by 2015. Bigelow is also working on inflatable lunar habitats. He claims that his inflatable structures provide more volume at a lower mass, and that, not being rigid and subject to fatigue, they will last longer. I think he may be on the right track.
Where is the commercialization of space headed? Thirty years of experience with the Space Shuttle, and ten years with the ISS, has taught us that there are no electronic component, or pharmaceutical, manufacturing processes that will ever become economical, if based in space. We don't need microgravity, or weightlessness, to conduct unique experiments in chemistry or metallurgy. With the advances in computer technology, these experiments can be modeled virtually, without the expense of conducting them on orbit. All of these notions, which were used to justify the Space Shuttle and the ISS, have all turned out to be dead ends.
There is one industry that does have growth potential, especially if the cost of getting to and from orbit can be significantly reduced. That industry is tourism.
Bob Bigelow may have really glimpsed the future with his idea of providing orbital hotels. There may be enough billionaires and multi-millionaires, who might want to take the ultimate adventure vacation for a million dollars. As the tourist volume increases, the cost will come down permitting those who are less well off to share the adventure.
By the end of this decade, there may be as many as three or four, US built, man-rated spacecraft for use by the federal government and the public. The Russians are considering building a small, shuttle-like spacecraft called the Clipper. The French are considering converting their Jules Verne cargo ship into a manned vehicle. India is planning to launch its first manned spaceflight by the middle of the decade, and China already has a formidable manned space agenda. We are really at the dawn of a new space age.