NASA and the Return to Human Spaceflight

A Sneak Peek at the Spacecraft of the Future

Artist's concept of Boeing CST-100 capsule planned for use starting 2017. NASA/Boeing

Ever since President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet in 2004, NASA has planned for new ways to get astronauts back to space. The process began well prior to the last shuttle launch and landing in 2011. Missions to the Moon, to asteroids, and ultimately a series of deep-space probes taking humans to Mars and beyond are part of the long-term timeline of space exploration for NASA. To do these missions requires vehicles that can safely take astronauts and cargo off-Earth in a dependable and regular manner.

Why Go to Space?

People have asked that question for years. And, it turns out there are many good reasons to have a dedicated U.S. space launch vehicle to ferry people back and forth to orbit. For one, the U.S. is part of the consortium that runs the International Space Station, and currently the country is paying $70+ million dollars per seat to Russian in order to boost astronauts to work via the Russian Space Agency. For another, NASA has long known that the shuttle program would need a successor. First under the direction of President Bush, and later encouraged by President Obama, the agency has been searching out cost-effective ways to rebuild the U.S.'s launch infrastructure. Today there are private companies poised to deliver such launch systems, rockets, and other technologies needed to pursue 21st century space exploration.

Who's Doing the Work?

There are several companies involved in taking people and payloads to space -- some new and some with major experience in the space biz. For example, both SpaceX and Blue Origin are testing launch vehicles that can loft crewed capsules to space. Blue Origin, started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is aimed at bringing both people and payloads to space. Some of its missions will be purely tourist-oriented, to give "regular" people a chance to experience space without having to train astronauts. To save money, the rockets for these launches are reusable. Each company has tested landing the rockets back at the launch pad. The first successful soft landing was on November 23rd, 2015, when Blue Origin landed its Shepard rocket after a test flight.

Boeing Corporation, which has a long history as a space and defense contractor, is behindthe Crew Space Transport (CST-100) system, which will be used to transport both crew and supplies to space.

SpaceX provides thethe Falcon series launch vehicles, used to transport crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit. Other companies have been developing spacecraft and launch vehicles, too. Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser vehicle looks very much like a modern shuttle. Although it did not win a contract from NASA to provide its product, Sierra Nevada is still planning to deploy its Dream Chaser, with an unmanned test flight scheduled for 2016. 

The Return of the Space Capsule

In very general terms, Boeing and SpaceX will create an updated capsule and launch system that looks very similar to the Apollo capsules of the 1960s and 1970s. So, how will the latest "capsule and missile" approach selected by NASA be different and "newer" than the systems that took astronauts to the Moon?

While the capsules of the CST-100 system may have roughly the same shape as the earlier missions, the latest incarnation is designed to carry up to 7 passengers comfortably to space, and/or a mix of astronauts and cargo. The destinations will be mainly low-Earth orbit such as the International Space Station, or a future commercial station still on the drawing boards. 

Each capsule is planned to be reusable for up to ten flights, will use updatable tablet computer technology, have wireless Internet, and have more creature comforts to enable a better flight experience for the passengers. Boeing, which has been equipping its commercial airliners with environmental lighting will do the same for the CST-100. The capsule system should be compatible with several launch systems, including the Atlas V, the Delta IV, and SpaceX's Falcon 9. 

Once these launch technologies are tested and proven, NASA will have regained much of the capability for human spaceflight back to U.S. hands. And, with the development of rockets for tourist travel, the road to space will open up for everybody.