Monday, October 03, 2011
Private Space Race On to Launch US Astronauts for NASA
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Private space companies will launch American astronauts into orbit years before NASA is ready to do so on its own again, but the race to be the first commercial space taxi service is still far from won.
NASA's next crew-carrying rocket, the heavy-lift Space Launch System, will blast off on its first test flight in 2017 at the earliest, agency officials have said. But a handful of private companies say they're on schedule to begin lofting astronauts by 2015 — or perhaps even earlier.
"We believe we'll be ready in three years," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (also known as SpaceX).
Encouraging private spaceflight
NASA is happy about the progress SpaceX and other companies seem to be making. The agency is not in competition with these firms, after all; rather, NASA is encouraging them to develop their capabilities, via its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.
In the last several years, the agency has given money to a handful of firms — including SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin — in two rounds of funding. The goal is to help establish American means of human transportation to space again, an ability the nation has lacked since the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in July.
Currently, the United States is completely dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
"Obviously, our focus is to close the gap," said Ed Mango, NASA's CCDev program manager. "We want an American-led system in order to get us back into low-Earth orbit, just like we've had for the last 30 years."
NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) isn't the answer for low-Earth orbit. The heavy-lift SLS is designed to launch the agency's crew-carrying Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle toward deep space destinations such as asteroids and Mars.