Defense Media Network

What Future for American Manned Spaceflight?

America in space: 21st century leader – or guest (Part 1)

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop at the Kennedy Space Center on July 11, 2011, the United States’ ability to send its own astronauts into space stopped as well, leaving China and Russia as mankind’s only full spacefaring nations.

The Obama administration’s cancellation 18 months earlier of the Constellation program, the shuttle replacement initiated by President George W. Bush in January 2004, made the vision of America’s future in space even murkier.

While the Constellation – the umbrella name for a new Orion Crew Capsule and Ares launcher – would not have gone into operation until 2015 at the earliest (and possibly as much as four years beyond that), its cancellation left NASA with no manned program at all. Which meant any American wanting to reach the largely U.S.-funded International Space Station (ISS) would have to buy an ultra-expensive seat in one of Russia’s three-seat Soyuz capsules – a spacecraft that has changed little from the Apollo moon race technology of the 1960s.

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), or Orion, being assembled and tested at Lockheed Martin’s Vertical Testing Facility in Colorado. Lockheed Martin photo

President Barack Obama initially said NASA would use commercially developed spacecraft and launchers for low Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) manned missions, while the space agency pursued development of a more powerful system, similar to the Saturn V rocket that boosted the Apollo space capsules to the moon. Details on what is now called the Space Launch System (SLS – a heavy-lift derivative of the shuttle booster) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV – essentially an Apollo capsule on steroids) were vague until mid-September 2011, when NASA finally released some details – including a tentative late 2017 “developmental” flight.

While the SLS could service the ISS and other LEO and GEO platforms and orbital missions, its primary target would be returning U.S. astronauts to the moon and to asteroids in the 2020s and beyond and, eventually, Mars later in the century. Meanwhile, the commercial space flight option remains the only direct plan for U.S. manned Earth orbital missions. When those may become reality depends on who is asked – and how the question is phrased.

In August 2011, NASA merged its Space Operations and Exploration Systems mission directorates to create a new Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate. HEO will work with the various private manned spacecraft, orbital platform, and man-rated launch vehicle efforts to give astronauts a less expensive and more “on demand” access to LEO – primarily the ISS – and GEO than offered by the Russians.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Flight 2. SpaceX/Chris Thompson

“America is opening a bold new chapter in human space exploration,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the time. “By combining the resources of Space Operations and Exploration Systems and creating the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, we are recommitting ourselves to American leadership in space for years to come.”

The response from industry, both relative newcomers and those with legacies dating back to the original Mercury program, was faster and more extensive than many had anticipated – and the schedules universally aggressive – too aggressive, for some observers.

Among those already working toward some part of the “recommitment [to] American leadership in space” are:

  • Alliant Techsystems: Liberty™ launch vehicle
  • Bigalow Aerospace: BA-330 expandable manned orbital platform
  • Blue Origin: Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) reusable biconic space vehicle and Reusable Booster System (biconic is an “inverted” hourglass – two oppositely-oriented cones with their bases joined)
  • Boeing Space Exploration Division: Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft
  • Lockheed Martin Space Systems: Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
  • Orbital Sciences Corp.: Orion Launch Abort System
  • Paragon Space Development Corp.: Orion spacesuit and spacecraft environmental components for Orion, Dragon, and other manned platforms
  • Sierra Nevada Space Systems – Dream Chaser seven-passenger manned spacecraft
  • Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) – Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft
  • United Launch Alliance – man-rated Atlas V rocket

Future articles in this Defense Media Network online series will profile each of these and other U.S. commercial manned space flight companies and programs.

In this Apollo 17 on-board photo, Mission Commander Capt. Eugene A. Cernan (USN) adjusts the U.S. flag deployed upon the moon. The seventh and last manned lunar landing and return to Earth mission, the Apollo 17, carrying a crew of three astronauts – Cernan, Lunar Module pilot Harrison H. Schmitt, and Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans – lifted off on Dec. 7, 1972, from the Kennedy Space Flight Center. The mission ended on Dec. 19. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Collection

For the moment, however, it should be noted not everyone is as confident as Bolden in the evolution and development of commercial space flight, especially within the time frames typically cited by many of those listed – some predicting first manned missions to the ISS as early as 2013.

“Although I do believe and hope that someday they will succeed, I still assess that those entrepreneurs in the world of commercial space who continue their claims of being able to put humans in space in little more than three years for something less than $5 billion, today still ‘don’t yet know what they don’t know’,” retired Capt. Eugene A. Cernan (USN), commander of the Apollo XVII lunar landing and the last man on the moon told the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on Sept. 22, 2011.

“My statement [in previous appearances before Congress] that ‘the sole reliance on the commercial sector without a concurrent or back-up approach could very well lead to the abandonment of our $100 billion, 25-year investment in the ISS’ is now more prophetic than ever.”

Cernan’s views, along with those of other former astronauts, current and former NASA officials, lawmakers, space industry leaders, and others also will be examined in greater detail in future installments of this series, “America in Space: 21st Century Leader – or Guest.”


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-25629">

    It is too bad our imaginations have stagnated beyond belief! Our President has basically scuttled NASA and the programs in the works are a token at best. I predict that China will far surpass the Russians and “we” are going to let them. Sad!