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  • Getting A Little Mo
    Posted by Frank Morring, Jr. 2:25 PM on Jul 23, 2010

    It looks like the U.S. space program may be getting a little momentum back. Congress is moving toward a considered response to the Obama administration's proposed space-policy changes, and the White House looks like it might play along and accept the compromise.

    If things keep moving -- never a given in Washington -- working-level NASA may actually get some clear guidance on a new direction by early next year. It looks like that will include building some kind of new system to get crews to the International Space Station as soon as possible, and speeding up work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle that will take them on beyond the station's low Earth orbit eventually.

    At a rough guess, this whole relook has cost the human spaceflight endeavor at least a year, but things aren't as bad as they might seem. To begin with, we're probably going to get one more space shuttle flight. That will push the near end of the U.S. spaceflight "gap" back by six months to a year -- well into 2011. And even with all the political scrambling that's been going on, the engineers haven't been standing around waiting for someone to make a decision.

    At Marshall Space Flight Center the men and women who have been trying to build the Ares I crew launch vehicle on starvation funding since George W. Bush was president have been keeping the hardware moving forward even as they take stock of what they can contribute to whatever comes next. The first developmental J-2X upper stage rocket engine,  always the pacing item for a full-up Ares I, should be ready for testing by the end of the year. It probably will come in handy later on.

    The Orion crew exploration vehicle looks like it's dodged the bullet, since there is good congressional support for keeping it going. Work is continuing on the solid-fuel Ares I first stage too, although its future is cloudy to say the least. But Congress doesn't want to spend the $6 billion in the Obama budget request for commercial crew transport, and this is what the government has as a starting point for its own next-generation U.S. crew carrier.

    The D.C. dustup has had another, less apparent impact on human spaceflight. With U.S. leadership in doubt, other spacefaring nations are looking for ways to fill the vacuum. Russia's space agency is said to be putting the finishing touches on a six-seat replacement for the three-seat Soyuz capsule that will be the only U.S. route to the ISS once the shuttle retires. China's human spaceflight boss has said he's willing to discuss flying the three-seat Shenzhou capsule to the station too, and NASA's station partners are willing to explore using it. After all, it is the newest human vehicle on the planet right now.

    Even without a big infusion of government cash, the commercial human spaceflight industry has gotten a boost from the suggestion that it can take on the job of flying humans to orbit. At the Farnborough air show in Britain Boeing announced plans to fly crews to the commercial space stations under development by Bigelow Aerospace, and both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are pushing their commercial cargo craft toward human flight.

    Now its time to give the job of designing spaceships back to the people who actually know how to do it.

    Tags: os99, NASA, space policy, Ares, Orion, Shenzhou, Soyuz

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