On Monday there were words about the various types of manned spacecraft we’ve flung into orbit (and beyond). Particularly discerning readers will have noticed that the vast majority of them — Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – were designed and launched within a single decade between 1960-1970. Since then we’ve had exactly one new manned space vehicle: the Space Shuttle. Manned spaceflight has been more or less left to stagnate by national governments, but there are promising signs that the next decade may be as groundbreaking as 1960-1970. Are governments becoming interested in spaceflight again? Hardly. The US government is still dragging its feet over the design and development of the MPCV, while I’ve heard very, very little about the proposed replacement for Soyuz (on the other hand that doesn’t really need replacing since it does what it’s supposed to extremely well). No, what’s going to be exciting about the next ten years is the opening up of human spaceflight to a variety of commercial efforts.
If you know me you’d probably expect me to hate the idea of private companies going into space, but to be honest governments have ignored it for the last fifty years and there’s at least a chance that profit will provide the driving force that simple discovery could not, so I’m broadly in favour of it. Regardless: not only has development of private “spaceflight” been in progress for a decade or so what with Virgin Galactic and all, but the US government recently initiated something called the Commercial Crew and Cargo program (CCC, or C3) whereby they subsidise the development of several different private spaceflight efforts with the view to buying or leasing the most suitable vehicle once development is complete.
It probably sounds inefficient to pay private companies to develop spacecraft that you then have to pay to use, and that’s because it is. It’s very inefficient. However, going up to LEO is relatively routine these days and by subsidising private efforts NASA ensures that the private sector has the technology base to take up any slack created by them abandoning LEO. And they are abandoning it; the MPCV mentioned in the last post theoretically has the capability to do LEO, but the ultimate intention of the program is to return astronauts first to the Moon or a suitable nearby asteroid, and then eventually in a few decades to possibly put a man on Mars (I nearly said person, but you know it’s going to be a guy). As it is they have to pay the Russians to make flights up to the ISS, so why shouldn’t they give some of that money to their own commercial efforts? It makes a twisted sort of sense, if you think about it.
Anyway, there’s several different competitors vying for a slice of the C3 pie. Excluding the Mickey Mouse effort of Virgin Galactic (which is literally a plane that goes really high rather than a true spacecraft), these private spacecraft are:
Boeing’s CST-100 – This catchily-named capsule is basically a space bus with a very simple design brief: deliver anywhere from between two to seven astronauts to LEO and then return them to Earth. It’s not going to go any further than that because it doesn’t have the capacity to do so.
Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser – Like Boeing’s effort, designed to take up to seven astronauts to LEO and back. You may notice that it looks like a miniature space shuttle, but the Dream Chaser launches on top of a rocket booster just like a capsule does. The wings and whatnot are just to allow it to land on a runway instead of splashing down in the ocean.
SpaceX’s Dragon – The interesting one. Like CST-100 and Dream Chaser, Dragon can do LEO with no problems, but it also has the theoretical capacity to go further – perhaps even to the Moon. It’s also the only one of the three private efforts to have actually made an unmanned test flight into orbit, so it actually does work. This got them noticed by NASA and they’ve been awarded a contract to resupply the ISS, so this is the one you’ll most likely see flying in the next decade or so.
In theory, then, that’s LEO taken care of. What about going further afield? You may or may not remember some hullaballoo about five or six years ago when President Bush announced the Constellation program. This was supposed to set NASA’s manned spaceflight goals for the next quarter-century, and those goals were lofty: to return to the Moon, to establish a permanent base there, and to put a man on Mars by 2030. Even the most insufferably optimistic space scientists thought that achieving all this on such a short timescale was a little unrealistic (it could be done with enough money and political will, but NASA doesn’t have anywhere near that much in their manned spaceflight budget), and sure enough when Obama was elected one of the first things he did was cancel the Constellation program. This meant that the proposed Ares heavy rocket booster and the Altair lunar lander were both cancelled, but what didn’t get cancelled was the Orion space vehicle (similar to the Apollo command and service modules). They couldn’t cancel that because despite the shifting political winds they still needed a replacement for the shuttle – which had been pushed far beyond its projected operational lifetime – and Orion was the best they had.
So Orion morphed into the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This is a four-man spacecraft designed to be launched on refurbished shuttle rocket boosters, and it’s multi-purpose because it can, theoretically, do pretty much any manned mission we can think of. Want to make a trip up to LEO? No problem, just launch the capsule. How about a near earth object? Stick a service module on it to extend its flight time and send it out there. Mars? Even that’s doable if you daisy-chain several service modules together to increase power, life-support and fuel capacity. This is the great advantage of a modular capsule design: it is hella adaptable in comparison to a fixed-mass spacecraft like the shuttle. It’s a great design if they can pull it off; an unmanned test flight of the Orion is scheduled for 2014, although I really wouldn’t expect to see it flying with people inside until the 2020’s at the very earliest.
Other countries are also looking at getting into space; Japan and India both have nascent manned spaceflight programs, while the European Space Agency was somewhat put out when NASA announced they wouldn’t be accepting international participation in Orion like they did with the shuttle, thus forcing ESA to start developing their own solution pretty damn quickly; it currently consists of a jury-rigged version of the unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle that carries supplies up and down from the ISS. All of these plans are still very much on the drawing board though, and it usually takes a spacecraft design at least a decade to actually make it off the drawing board and into space – and as the Chinese have proved, even then it can be a slow, arduous process developing the technology. No, I think that in the future LEO will belong to Soyuz and the commercial spacecraft, with the MPCV providing a longer-range option should we ever want one.