NASA announced a new astronaut group of eight hopeful space fliers, but they are all dressed up with no place to go. That’s because this week marks the sixth year that America has been without its own spaceship, thanks to U.S. Congressional budget cuts and Presidential Administrations vacillating over the direction of the now meager U.S. space program that once had the world’s eyes putting NASA center stage.
The last American spaceship, Space Shuttle Atlantis, roared off the launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011, the 135th flight of the Space Transportation System. Once envisioned as a profitable space truck to put satellites in orbit for commercial, military and academic customers, the STS program became extremely complex and hard to keep a commercial schedule after the 1986 launch disaster that destroyed orbiter Challenger, killing seven astronauts.
NASA’s focus changed to building the $100 billion International Space Station, and after 35 error-free flights, the magnificent facility continues to orbit the Earth every 90 minutes in its 16th year of continued occupation of six person crews since November 2001, now up to Expedition 51. But the 2003 reentry destruction of orbiter Columbia after a successful 17-day science mission (caused by a hole punched in the wing) during lift-off got NASA thinking it was time to build a new, Apollo-style capsule called Orion.
Once part of the “Constellation” program initiated in 2007 by the administration of President George Bush, it was cancelled by the President Barak Obama Administration in favor of developing private space industry. The Orion spacecraft managed to survive and is being built, but it is without a rocket to launch it, as technical problems and money constraints have delayed the Space Launch System.
In 2017, it is billionaires and their private rocket programs that are launching satellites to space with the ambitious plans to put the first humans in orbit by a non-governmental entity. SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and soon Blue Origin have become the big players in a new private sector “Space Race”. Their bottom line is making money, and to do that they are reinventing rocket travel in the 21st Century.
SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Co. and former PayPal entrepreneur. And Blue Origin is owned by Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO. They both have rockets that return their first stage to Earth after a launch for reuse, saving tens of millions of dollars. SpaceX has been very active in 2016 and 2017, launching commercial satellites and the supply ship, Dragon, to the ISS. Blue Origin is soon to enter the arena as they are building a huge complex near the Kennedy Space Visitor Center, where orbiter Atlantis is now displayed
Both Musk and Bezos are in a competition to launch the first people in space by a private firm, and they are targeting 2018. SpaceX’s manned ship is Crew Dragon, and Blue Origin’s is using the company name for their 6-person spaceship. Both private manned spacecraft are to be flown by autopilot.
Orbital ATK and CEO David Thompson are also major players in the private space race, having launched their rockets with commercial satellites and a supply ship Cygnus to the ISS several times. They built the unmanned spacecraft Dawn, still orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt.
Boeing is also building a manned spacecraft, called Starliner. NASA astronauts will be integrated in those private manned spacecraft as part of the Commercial Crew Program when they begin their missions, so there will be some hope for the new astronaut recruits.
These private companies are leasing launch pads and facilities at America’s famous Cape Canaveral in Florida, and the Space Port has spent the last five years gearing up for the transition.
Meanwhile, NASA astronauts are sticking their thumbs out for a ride to space, with the 6-person Orion spacecraft not expected to become operational until maybe as late as 2022.
When Atlantis landed July 21, 2011 after its 12-day mission, 15,000 employees of NASA and their contractors lost their jobs. Some have trickled back to the Space Coast as NASA gears up for support of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, and Boeing.
Understand what has happened here.
The world’s space leader that put 12 men on the Moon from 1969-1972 are without access to the International Space Station, whose major parts were hauled up by the Space Shuttle and largely fit together by American and Russian spacewalking hardhats, with American taxpayers footing more than half of the bill. The U.S., Russians, Europe and Japan have large sections of the ISS devoted to their own science research.
The only way Americans can now visit and work on the ISS is by hitching a ride aboard the 3-person Soyuz spacecraft, remodeled several times since its first 1967 maiden flight. At $60 million a seat. Are American taxpayers okay with that? NASA’s budget is about one-half of one percent of the US Budget, $19 billion in 2017—something like $20 per taxpayer a year.
China has their own spaceship, the three-person Shenzhou—largely designed like the Russian Soyuz. They have flown six manned missions since 2003 and 15 total “taikonauts.” And they have orbited two space stations that have housed their space fliers. The Chinese are boasting about going to the Moon in the 2020s. And Japan has a manned spaceship in production that may be launched in a few years.
Once the leader in the Space Age, that title for America may soon be vanquished.