In class on Wednesday we began discussing Angle of Attack and the topic was brought up about whats next for NASA and space travel now that the Space Shuttles have been retired. From the brief comments that were made in class it became apparent to me that NASA has been flying well under the radar with what it is up to. This is the complete opposite from how all of the programs in NASA's history have been operated with tons of media coverage throughout the programs.
With the last Shuttle flight completed and the cancellation of Constellation program the future of NASA is up in the air. NASA is right now working on developing a heavy lifting Space Launch System to eventually fly to near Earth Asteroids and Mars. What will fly on top of that launch system is another major shift in NASA's policy, a reliance on commercial companies to build and operate rockets and spacecraft. I made a mention of this in my post about the launch failure of the Russian Progress spacecraft, here. One of the two companies that won contracts for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, COTS, Space X was briefly mentioned, but right now I want to talk a little about the other company, Orbital Science and their Tauras II rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.
Orbital Science, normally called Orbital, was founded in the early 1980s and mainly focused on launching satellites. In 2008 they began to develop the Tauras II rocket and unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to fly 8 cargo missions to the ISS. The first Tauras II flight was originally going to take place in 2010 but has been postponed until at least the fourth quarter of 2011.
The other company that won a COTS contract with NASA was Space X out of Hawthorne, CA. Space X uses a Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to complete their missions to the ISS. As part of their 12 cargo flight contract Space X has to fly 2 test flights to the ISS to test out all of the systems of the spacecraft. The second of those two flights with launch in November and if everything goes well the first private unmanned cargo flight to the ISS will take place next year. On top of that crewed Dragon capsules should be ready to test in a year of two.
As for Mars NASA is working with Space X to get a Dragon and new Falcon 9 Heavy rocket for a low-cost mission to Mars that would launch by the end of decade.
So far I have only talked about cargo and ISS crew flights and have made no mention of private sub-orbital and orbital space planes like the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. Most of these planes are not yet spacecraft because they are not designed to leave the atmosphere. Virgin is looking to start flights next year and soon anyone will be able to go into space.
Part 1 has focused on the future of United States space travel, part 2 which should come either tonight or tomorrow will focus on what other countries are doing when it comes to space travel.