I started the post on the progress of human spaceflight around the world and hit the post length limit for ATS. Interesting that. I also had sources
update with progress for India and China just after or soon after I posted. China announced they were building a bigger rocket for placing people on
the Moon and India had their successful pad abort test.
I would write more about the European and Japanese spaceflight programs, but there's not much to say. Neither, erm, nation is making an independent
human spaceflight capability a priority. They wish to use the American, Russian or potentially Chinese capabilities in the future. There's little
interest in pursuing this on their own. They have their own cargo ships for the ISS, but they are not going to make any more of them as far as I can
That leaves one nation left.
The United States
The US lost its independent human spaceflight capability in 2011 when the space shuttle was retired. The space shuttle program had been flying for
nigh on 30 years, which was far, far longer than what had been originally planned. However, it is not to say that the US has abandoned space. Rather
that the US repeated a pattern it did when the Apollo program was ended. It merely took a breather, booked flights with the Russians, and began
working on its own capabilities to get into space.
The US first invested in the capabilities to deliver cargo to space, to support the ISS, independent of the Russians. The SpaceX
capsule ferries supplies to the space station and has the reentry capability so it may
bring experiments back: this capability came into play on Oct 8, 2012. The Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK)
also provides the capability to delivery supplies to the space station. However,
it cannot return the experiments to the surface of the Earth and burns up on reentry. It did its first delivery in Nov 2013. The second round of
contracts for delivering cargo the space station added Sierra Nevada's DreamChaser
unmanned form for six deliveries between 2019 and 2024.
The US also invested in the SpaceX Dragon 2
capsule that will allow it to fly people to the space
station and back. This is supposed to have an unmanned flight in August, 2018 as a demonstration, but is expected to slip. The first crewed flight
was to be in December 2018, but with the slip of the unmanned flight, the manned will be delayed. Likewise, the US invested in the Boeing
. This was supposed to have an unmanned test flight in October, 2018, but
that too is expected to slip as well. However, the manned flights are likely to take place in 2019. After an eight year hiatus, longer than anyone
expected, the US will return to an independent human spaceflight.
It should be noted the above capsules and solitary spaceplane all fly on different rockets. The Dragons fly on Space Falcon9 rockets and,
theoretically, on the FalconHeavy. The Starliner and DreamChaser fly on Atlas V rockets. The Cygnus flies on the Antares primarily, but can fly on
the Atlas V (and has when the Antares had a launch failure).
All of the above was designed with the intent that should any one path to space be a problem, there was a backup plan. it's a pretty significant
investment that the US has made and will make sure issues like the Challenger or Columbia happen, the US will not lose access to space. That alone
would be an impressive development for access to space, but that is not all the US is doing.
The US is also developing the Orion
space capsule. While the Dragon 2 and Starliner are
intended for operations in LEO, the Orion is intended to operate beyond low earth orbit. A test flight of the Orion capsule on a
Delta IV rocket
took place in Dec 2014. The next launch will involve the
Space Launch System
, a very heavy rocket, in June 2020. This will be unmanned, but will
be followed by the first manned flight no later than 2023. However, a wrinkle in those plans developed when Congress provided the funding for a
second crawler, allowing for NASA to potentially continue to launch the original version of the SLS while working on the other crawler for the even
larger version of the SLS. Previously, the crawler would have been taken out of service to upgrade it to carry the bigger rocket. This could mean
the first manned Orion mission might happen faster than 2023. This capsule will head to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway on its second manned
mission. The planned flight rate is meant to be an annual flight. With the second crawler, and assuming sufficient funding, this may increase to
twice per year.
It should be noted the service module
, ie engines and fuel, for the Orion are being
built by the Europeans in lieu of resupply missions to the International Space Station. The Europeans were on the hook for those missions, but NASA
negotiated a swap to save money since we are now capable of resupply of the station independent of the Russians with the Dragon, Cygnus and soon to be
DreamChaser. On that thought, the Cygnus is partially built by the Italians, at least the module part, as were some of the modules that were American
on the ISS.
The US isn't quite done yet. Congress has funded the proposed Lunar Orbital
. This is a space station will be in an orbit around the moon, but such that it never falls in the shadow of the Moon. NASA
has already been testing tech and doing studies for the space station. However, NASA will be awarding contract for the first element, the propulsion
module, this near year. The expected launch date is 2022. These will be followed with a habitation module and docking port. These will be placed by
2026. There are also calls, but not as yet plans for a fuel depot as well. The LOPG is intended to be port where astronauts will temporarily stay
before they either head to the Moon or onto Mars. The LOPG is also intended to be the assembly point of the 'ship' astronauts use to go Mars.
The 'ship' astronauts will use to go to Mars is the Deep Space Transport
. This is the
functional equivalent of the Hermes spacecraft in the movie, "The Martian." This will be launched in 2027 and connected to the LOPG. It is planned
to have a one year long shakedown cruise in cislunar space prior to taking a shot at Mars in 2033. The plan would be for the DTS to return to the
LOPG after each martian mission.
If the direction of the President is followed, there will be lunar landings as well. If the second crawler actually materializes and the funding to
increase the SLS launch cadence to biannually, then it might be possible to get a lunar landing annually into the mix. However, no funding has been
provided as yet for a manned lunar OR martian lander. These, too, must be funded.
One more part coming.