We are, I hope, entering into a new era of space travel and exploration: private, commercial spaceflight. Space travel was always the domain of governments: mainly the United States and the Russians, but others are now joining the club. For this series of articles, I thought we would take a look at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, both near-term and a little bit longer out.
The Future of Spaceflight
The immediate next steps for the space program are to expand SpaceX’s and Orbital’s launch capabilities to include manned missions. These would start out as missions to the International Space Station. NASA has already given contracts to both of these corporations to develop this capability. The SpaceX Dragon capsule was designed with this in mind and has a crewed variant that is designed to lift four people into space. Two other companies are currently working on crewed commercial spacecraft with NASA grants under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev): Boeing and Sierra Nevada. Boeing is working on a capsule much like the Dragon called the CST-100. This capsule is designed to transport up to 7 people and is intended to be in service beginning in 2015.
Sierra Nevada is taking an altogether different approach. Instead of a capsule, Sierra Nevada is designing a glider much like a smaller, more streamlined version of the space shuttle. They are calling it Dream Chaser.
Frankly, I find this spacecraft fascinating. Unlike the shuttle, which rode to space on the side of its giant booster rocket, this beauty will sit vertically on the top of an Atlas V rocket. I think that Sierra Nevada should make beer tap handles like this because that’s what it looks like to me. This craft will also carry up to seven people, but will glide back to runways like the shuttle did, rather than splashing down in the ocean. The Dream Chaser is currently intended to enter service in early 2015. I think this one is my favorite out of all the different commercial craft being developed for NASA.
Slightly Less Near-Term: To Infinity and Beyond
In the meantime, NASA is continuing development on its Orion spacecraft. Orion will be the first manned spacecraft capable of going beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo. And, somewhat fittingly, Orion looks almost the same as Apollo.
But it uses a lot more modern technology than Apollo did. There is a common saying that a modern digital wrist watch has more computing power than all the computers on Apollo. Well, it’s not entirely accurate, but it’s close. This blog has a somewhat more detailed analysis if you care to check it out.
The Orion craft takes full advantage of every advancement we’ve made since the 60’s. This article best summarizes the new technology going inside Orion. The myriad of dials, switches, and buttons from Apollo, and even the space shuttle, will be replaced by three computer monitors with a few dials and switches around the edges. The design of the craft is making major steps toward having much of its systems fully automated; NASA is designing the craft to run itself if the astronauts are out on a mission or otherwise occupied. Oddly enough, the computers will have only the processing power of computers from about 2005, back when Windows XP was king and dual-core processors were just hitting the market. The reason is reliability: do you think your PC from today would be able to withstand a ride in a paint-can mixer? I know mine won’t. NASA has designed these computers to be extraordinarily reliable, which does sacrifice some performance. However the astronauts are not up there playing Crysis, so I don’t think they’ll suffer too much.
The physical aspects of the craft are benefiting from advancements, too. Better engines, better ablative coating (the tiles that prevent the craft from burning up on reentry), even better latrine systems. The base service module will provide for 21 days of habitability in space, which can apparently be extended with the addition of other modules up to 210 days. NASA has a nice little fact sheet here.
Now what are we going to do with Orion? So far, NASA has stated several goals for Orion: near-Earth asteroids, the Moon, the moons of Mars (Deimos and Phobos), and eventually Mars itself. That’s right, we’re going to Mars.
These are the immediate next steps in human space exploration. The Moon was our first baby-step into space. Now it’s time to go farther. And NASA is developing the craft to do it in.