Greg Redfern, wtop.com
When Space Shuttle Atlantis achieves "Wheels Stopped" at the Kennedy Space Center, July 20th (the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 11), another era in America's manned spaceflight program comes to an abrupt end. The Mercury and Gemini programs gave us the ability and experience necessary to do all the things required by the Apollo program to get to the Moon and back.
Apollo got us to the surface of the Moon six times and was canceled with ready-to-go lunar missions left hanging due to fiscal cutbacks caused by the Vietnam war. Instead of going to the Moon we flew one Apollo mission with the Russians and then several others during Skylab - America's first orbiting space station.
Then came a gap of several years while the Space Shuttle program developed fixes for vexing technical problems. Now more than 30 years later, America is once again at a manned spaceflight crossroads - where to go and what to use to get there. America is once again out of the intrinsic manned spaceflight business for the foreseeable future.
How Did We Get Here?
In 2004 President Bush launched a post-Shuttle plan called the Constellation Program which was going to use Apollo and Space Shuttle derived hardware designs to go to the Moon and beyond - including Mars. No longer would America be locked into low Earth orbit (LEO) as we were with the Space Shuttle. We would be going TO space places again. There was no budgetary plus up forthcoming however, to jump start this new program.
In response to Constellation, NASA started building hardware in the form of the Ares 1-X test launch vehicle, the Orion crew capsule, launching science missions to the Moon to learn more about this future colonization site. NASA was going back to the Moon and was going to stay this time. Four astronauts would stay on the Moon's surface for two weeks at a time. Resources would be sought at promising landing sites so that the astronauts could learn to live in-situ on the Moon.
A change in administrations as well as the fiscal state of the country led to the creation of the Augustine Commission in 2009 which was to study NASA manned spaceflight and come up with recommendations.
Bottom line of the Commission's findings involved a fiscal bottom line - NASA could not pay for Constellation with its current and projected budget. NASA was short at least $3 billion a year from achieving its stated goals in Constellation.
So Constellation was shut down after billions had been spent although the Orion crew capsule is still going forward as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). There also may be other hardware aspects from Constellation going forward but that remains to be seen.
As it stands now, NASA is getting out of the Low Earth Orbit business and turning that over to private industry. We still have to support the International Space Station (ISS) which is slated for another 10 years of operations. Astronauts, supplies, parts and trash removal still have to be shuttled to and from ISS. Commercial spacecraft are being developed to perform these tasks but it will take years to achieve manned spaceflight certification. Until then, Americans will pay $63 million per seat for passage to ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. And the follow on commercial per-seat costs could be even more.
So what is NASA itself to do now that it is supposed to be out of the LEO business? The stated goal of the President and the NASA Administrator is a manned spaceflight mission to a Near Earth Object (asteroid), the Moon and eventually Mars.
We are gathering a lot of data about asteroids from a number of missions that have flown to them. NASA's DAWN mission is slated to go into orbit for a year around the second largest object in the asteroid belt (located between Mars and Jupiter) on July 16th. DAWN will then fly to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt and orbit it for detailed study. Such missions will help prepare for a manned spaceflight mission to an asteroid.
The final design of a new heavy lift vehicle is to be announced shortly but I have not seen any mention of a lander-type spacecraft. Why fly astronauts to someplace without landing? We can do far more with robotic orbiters than orbiting astronauts. This is something else NASA will have to do.