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NASA Manned Spaceflight Slowly Dies

Just before dawn on July 21st of last year, Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is the same complex from which all six of the country's missions that took men to the moon were launched. Each shuttle mission, all 135 of them, lifted off from the concrete of this complex. This successful one-chance-only landing on the center's three mile long runway in the dark was nearly the same as the hundred before it. There was one major difference however: these four crewmembers may be the very last humans NASA ever launches into space.


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News this week suggests that the planned successor to the Space Shuttle, named the Orion, has been delayed from its scheduled first manned flight in 2016. The new estimated date? 2021. That's if everything goes according to plan. (How often does THAT ever happen?)

Whether you proclaim manned spaceflight a glorious pinnacle of human ingenuity and exploration or deride it as an impractical, expensive national show of "swag," the US government's time at the forefront is likely coming to an end. What is coming to replace it, and how are we going to ferry astronauts between earth and the $100-billion International Space Station?

The plan was to buy seats on the generally extremely reliable Russian Soyuz spaceships until our next generation ship was finished. Things not going according to plan struck here too though, when an unmanned Soyuz mission crashed last August. The Russian Federal Space Agency quit launching the craft until they determined the cause of the crash and attempted to address it. For roughly three months there was no way for any one to go up, and no way for anyone up to make it back!

With a tenuous lifeline to the ISS and any other human activities in space, this latest NASA delay is a major blow to all human endeavors in the realm. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched by one mission and has been repaired and upgraded five different times by human hands brought up on the Space Shuttle. Many of the satellites and space telescopes (such as Kepler, which finds other "earths" in the universe) have also required astronauts to be deployed into space.

Given NASA's likely failure to produce any vehicles capable of carrying people into space for the foreseeable future, we will probably soon be using private companies to get there. While these companies also miss deadlines, they are still realistically planning manned flight in two to three years. What's more, they have spacecraft that are already completely designed and built, and they have flown them to space and back. 

Spacex Dragon.jpg

Even if NASA ever does get its act together, they may already be long surpassed by the next generation of space explorers and workers!

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Tom Hartsfield
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