Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Letting Ivan Do The Flying.
Yet from a cost perspective contracting with the Russians is not such a bad thing. According to this NASA FAQ page (here), the average shuttle flight is about $450 million.
The private launch industry in the US is not mature enough yet to compete with Russia for the job of taking astronauts to orbit. But once it is, it would certainly be in the US government's interest to pay a domestic company to do the job they are willing to pay the Russians to do. We should do more to hasten that day.
Two years ago I would have said that was impossible, and a year ago I would have said it was unlikely. After the last mission and subsequent doubts and attacks on the program, though, I remarked to a friend, "If they can't get another Shuttle up this year, it won't fly again." Now it's January 2006, and the earliest expected launch date is mid-year. Unless the CEV program turns things around somehow, the future of NASA's manned space program is pretty bleak.
That said, here's a timeline I wouldn't mind seeing:
2006 - NASA pushes back the launch date of STS-121 repeatedly. No Shuttle launches this year. Congress passes significant NASA budget cuts. ISS replacement crews continue to be sent up on Soyuz flights. SpaceX launches two successful Falcon 1 flights.
2007 - After years of setbacks, NASA "postpones indefinitely" all future Shuttle flights in favor of CEV development. Russia briefly blocks ISS resupply missions until a new long-term deal with NASA is signed. A first CEV launch is rescheduled for 2010 in an ambitious effort to "plug the Shuttle hole". SpaceX launches two more successful Falcon 1 flights, but postpones the Falcon 9 launch due to technical issues. The Spaceship Company starts test flights of SpaceShipTwo.
2008 - A high-profile failure and safety reviews of the floundering CEV program cause NASA to reconsider the use of SRBs as a human-rated launch platform. Congress blocks a requested increase in NASA spending in an attempt to reduce another record budget deficit. SpaceX announces the first successful Falcon 9 launch, followed surprisingly quickly by the launch of the first section of a Bigelow space station. After a rocky start, Virgin Galactic begins regular sub-orbital flights. A previously-unknown contender annouces a partnership with Space Adventures and SpaceX to dock with the Bigelow station in 2009. China launches ShenZhou-7 and conducts the first taikonaut spacewalk.
2009 - Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, and the taikonauts from ShenZhou-7 are named Men of the Year by Time Magazine. The success of Virgin Galactic spawns a number of new sub-orbital startups. The Space Adventures partnership wins America's Space Prize, amazingly on schedule. NASA shifts its ISS resupply contracts from Soyuz to the new Space Adventures service, and ISS hosts its largest permanent crew to date.
2010 - Sub-orbital and orbital flights become the new vogue among millionaires from the Second Web Boom. Bigelow Station expands rapidly to accomodate increasing numbers of flights and guests. Venture capital pours into hundreds of new firms hoping to carve out a slice of the 'space commerce' craze. NASA undergoes a dramatic restructuring in order to focus on promotion, regulation, training, and certification of this new industry. Scientific missions and administration are transferred from NASA to NSF. Virgin Galactic announces orbital flights in a remarkably Shuttle-orbiter-like rocketplane starting in 2011. Mars Society membership swells. 4Frontiers announces plans to reach the Moon in 2012 and Mars in 2016.
Could it happen? Maybe. I've tried to stick with realistic timelines. Then again, that hyperspace drive might be feasible, too...
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