Airplanista Magazine Monthly Column: Adam Fast's NASA Report: The future of space travel without NASA’s shuttles

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This digital aviation magazine content was originally published in the August, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine and can be viewed here.

By Adam Fast,
for Airplanista Magazine

As we enter a post-Shuttle era, a great deal of uncertainty remains about what the United States will do for its spacefaring future.

In the meantime, the International Space Station will be crewed solely from Russian Soyuz capsules. November, 2009’s STS-129 was the last time a Shuttle would bring a Station crewmember (Nicole Stott) back from orbit. She was also the last astronaut to commute to space on a Shuttle, STS-128 in August, 2009. Under the most recent agreement covering 2014-2015, NASA pays Roscosmos (Russian Space Program) $62.7 million per seat for this “taxi” service.

Basic resupply of fuel, water, breathable oxygen and experiment materials has begun via both Roscosmos “Progress” supply ships based on the Soyuz and the European Space Agency’s “ATV” or automated transfer vehicle non-reusable capsules. ATVs are capable of about three times as much cargo as a Progress and both launch unmanned and handle their own navigation / control for docking (crew on the ground and on Station monitor docking closely just in case.)

In order to keep multiple supply possibilities open NASA has begun their “commercial orbital transportation services” program, or COTS. COTS provides both financial investment and technology assistance from NASA to vendors developing NASA requested technologies. A number of vendors are involved in COTS, but none is further along than Space Exploration Technologies, SpaceX. On December 8, 2010 a SpaceX Falcon 9 (9 engines named the Merlin 1C) launched from Cape Canaveral, FL and entered orbit around Earth. After two orbits, the capsule re-entered the atmosphere and landed in the Gulf of Mexico.

The development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule are claimed by SpaceX to have cost $300 million over 4.5 years - by comparison the NASA Mercury program is reported to have cost $384 million, adjusted for the consumer price index more than $2.7 billion 2010 dollars. Keep in mind, however, that 20 unmanned and 6 manned flights were made during Mercury - and very little was truly known about going to space at that time. The dollar figure of the research and development known and available to SpaceX now can’t be determined to truly compare apples to apples here - but it is a great achievement nonetheless.

The next Falcon 9/Dragon flight is to approach the International Space Station and prove that the system is ready for on-orbit rendezvous. Engineering review and conversations are taking place to combine this (third) flight with the next planned flight and proceed to fully dock. This is expected to be approved, but is not a given yet. After this/these flights SpaceX will become the first non-governmental agency to operate an orbital delivery service to ISS.

SpaceX also intends for its rockets and capsules to be human-rated - if this is achieved they may eventually be sending crew to ISS for their “shifts” as well. It could eventually be used for space tourism, and its development objectives included the ability for use on Mars and lunar missions.

What about the other “commercial space” story we’ve all heard of - Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne/SpaceShipTwo? It doesn’t actually enter orbit, so while its occupants are unquestionably “in space” they’re going too slow to stay there for more than a few minutes. They will open up space to more “normal people” but the craft isn’t capable of a trip to the ISS or executing experiments that require more than a few minutes of microgravity.

The other interesting idea is sometimes called the “Space Hotel.” In 2006, Bigelow Aerospace launched Genesis 1 followed by Genesis 2 in 2007, both prototypes and proof of concept of their plan for commercial space stations using what they call “inflatable space structures” which are launched smaller than their final size. As they continue their development, any company or individual who wants their own space program can rent space on board.

The day I get to pin on astronaut wings is going to be awesome, regardless of how I get there.

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