The United States looks to be getting back into the business of putting astronauts into space on U.S. designed and built spacecraft. Back in 2010, the Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, the Bush-era program to develop a Shuttle replacement and a set of new boosters to lift heavy payloads into orbit. Instead, NASA asked private companies to step up and develop new capabilities to send payloads and people into space. It was hoped that bringing private competition to bear would reduce launch costs and revitalize the U.S. space launch industry which had increasingly lost ground to the Russians, Chinese and Europeans. Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, U.S. astronauts have been forced to hitch a very expensive ride ($60 million a seat) on Russian Soyuz spacecraft in order to get to the International Space Station.
Now multiple potential successors to the Shuttle are getting ready to fly. In 2012, under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program, NASA selected three U.S. companies to share more than $1 billion in funds to build and demonstrate new, manned spacecraft. Boeing is working on the Crew Space Transportation -100. The CST-100 could conduct its first unmanned flight sometime in 2016. SpaceX is developing the DragonRider variant of its Dragon cargo capsule. SpaceX has delivered multiple cargo payloads to the International Space Station using the Dragon capsule aboard the Falcon 9 rocket. DragonRider could go into space, unmanned, as early as mid-2015. SpaceX also has successfully competed for commercial launch business, lofting several communications satellites into orbit. Finally, Sierra Nevada Corporation is competing with its Dream Chaser. Unlike the Boeing and SpaceX offerings, which look like traditional Apollo and Soyuz space capsules, Dream Chaser looks and operates more like an airplane, taking off vertically aboard an Atlas rocket but landing horizontally. Sierra Nevada was the first of the three competitors to commit to a date for a Dream Chaser test flight, which the company is paying for itself: November 1, 2016.
It is ironic that the United States soon could be flying three brand new, 21st century manned space vehicles launched by rockets employing old engine technology, some of which isn’t even U.S. Most U.S. payloads are sent into space aboard the venerable but extremely reliable Atlas V rocket. The first stage of the Atlas V is the Russia-built RD-180; the second stage is the U.S.-built RL-10, first flown in the early1960s. SpaceX’s Falcon employs the Merlin engine, a good system but with its roots back in the Apollo program.
The U.S. hasn’t designed and built an entirely new liquid-fuel rocket engine in more than 40 years. This has resulted in a loss of human capital as well as the atrophying of the engine industrial base. A new engine would take advantage of decades of advances in engineering and manufacturing to reduce cost and improve performance. SpaceX has shown what is possible when the U.S. government engages the private sector to address the rocket engine problem. But the nation should not rely on any one company to revitalize the rocket engine industrial base. Moreover, the U.S. government has long sought a domestic source for the type of engine that U.S. launch providers now must buy from Russia, called an oxygen-rich staged combustion engine. Now is the time to make a renewed push in advanced rocket engines.
It is gratifying to know that at least one and possibly three U.S. designed and built spacecraft will soon be flying. But much more is needed if the U.S. is to reclaim its leadership role in space. NASA and the U.S. Air Force need to expand their current, limited support for development of new advanced liquid-fueled engines. It makes no sense to spend billions on new payloads and spacecraft and relatively little on new engines to carry them into space.
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