Just two months to go before the maiden flight of the Orion spacecraft, on 4 December 2014. Yes, I'm shamelessly reposting NASA propaganda videos here. Because, you know, rockets!
Ok, so, if we're going to have a "Space Race," we need to define the racetrack.
There are two really important things to understand about the immediate future (next couple of decades, say) of human spaceflight. One, space flight is really difficult. Two, the main reason space flight is really difficult is that the places we want to go are really far away.
There are only a few destinations worth realistic consideration between now and 2040, and hence part of what I would consider the current Space Race; Near Earth Orbit, the moon and lunar orbit (and the earth/moon Langrangian orbits), near-earth asteroids and comets, and Mars and its moons. That's it, that's as far as humans will possibly get in the next quarter century, if we're very ambitious and very lucky. The one possible addition to this is that if the Dawn spacecraft proves that Ceres is a helluva lot more interesting than currently assumed, it could be prioritized into the mix, but I consider that highly unlikely. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn, tantalizing though they are, are going to have to wait for later generations. Hopefully we will land robot probes there much sooner.
I'm going to talk a bit about linear, point-to-point distances, as a vacuum-packed crow might fly. Spacecraft don't fly in straight lines, a fact I'll be discussing in greater detail at a later point, but the distance ratios for comparison are relatively the same regardless.
Low Earth Orbit, meaning the altitude of the International Space Station, is about 425 km above the earth. That's about the driving distance from Seattle to Spokane, or Chicago to St Louis. To date, only NASA, Roscosmos and China's single Shenzhou 5 mission have successfully put humans here. Only NASA has ever put humans any higher than this.
The moon (and environs) are about 400,000 km away, some 940 times the distance to the ISS. Which is why nobody has been back there in almost 43 years.
At the very closest point in its orbit, Mars is about 100,000,000 km away from earth. That's 250 times the distance to the moon, or about 235,000 times the distance to the ISS. Which, again, is the farthest distance humans have traveled since 1972.
I had intended to create a drawing which accurately depicted these scales, and figured out that I couldn't. The disparity of scale is simply too great. And maybe that illustrates the point as well as any drawing could.
So, there's really no better place to begin a series about the current race for human spaceflight, exploration and colonization than to discuss the realities of human spaceflight right now. As of this morning, our total presence off of planet earth right now is five men and one woman on board the International Space Station. I'll talk lots about the ISS in a later post, but I wanted to start with the rocket which got the crew to the ISS today, the venerable Soyuz.
Soyuz is like the Volkswagen Beetle of the world's space programs; small, simple, reliable, and basically unchanged since 1967. 121 crewed launches as of today; I think that's more than all of the rest of the world's crewed space launches combined. Soyuz exemplifies the Russian model of "low-tech solutions to high-tech problems," the spacecraft has always had the look and feel of something that could have been built as a weekend project in someone's garage. I kind of love this spacecraft.
In the series I intend to talk about both the challenges ahead and the hardware being developed to meet those challenges, and focus on both big players like NASA and much smaller independent players as well. I'm specifically going to look at the immediate future of this decade and the next, meaning realistically probably no further afield than Mars. Well, maybe Ceres or Europa, if someone gets really ambitious.
So, quick disclaimers. I do not presently work in any part of the aerospace industry, and I do not own shares in any part of the aerospace industry, nor am I in any way affiliated with any particular part of the aerospace industry. I do live in Seattle, which is the home of Boeing, and also Blue Origin. I previously served aboard submarines which carried and launched both Poseidon C3 and Trident C4 missiles, and spent a fair amount of time at Port Canaveral for ballistic missile testing and telemetry (and incidentally got to see a number of space shuttle and satellite launches in the process), but my specialty was navigation, not weapons. The last time I was directly or even indirectly involved with the design, development or deployment of any rocket that did not have the word "Estes" on it somewhere, Ronald Reagan was president. I am a US citizen and a veteran of the US Navy, so naturally I have some bias toward American space programs, but my main thrust is to see successful human spaceflight under all and any flag. Russia, China, Japan, India, the European Union and other governmental agencies, and also the various commercial and otherwise independent space ventures, all are contributing to our exploration and eventual colonization of the solar system, and will be covered here in various detail. Also, my age informs my biases. I was barely old enough to watch (and be enthralled by) the Apollo moon landings, and it is my great hope to be able to watch the first humans land on Mars as well. Also, selfishly, I would very much like for the cost of commercial spaceflight to become affordable to the point of experiencing it personally, while I am still young enough to do so. Nothing too extravagant; if I can get over the Kármán line before I'm 75 or so, I'll call that a win.
The race is on.
By naming this "Skylab II" I think NASA is implicitly acknowledging that the International Space Station is and always was mostly a Russian endeavor, more "Mir II" than "Freedom," more "Beta" than "Alpha." This isn't a bad thing; were it not for the Russians and Roscosmos right now, we would not have any human presence in space at all, and the ISS would be just an empty and decaying shell of space junk, if it had ever existed at all. But I am very happy to see the US back in the game.
NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, pilot of the space shuttles Columbia and Discovery, and commander of the space shuttles Atlantis and Discovery, seems to be shifting NASA's narrative away from the space shuttle and ISS, and toward SLS/Orion as a continuation of the Saturn V/Apollo program. It isn't a bad narrative. When the SLS program was first announced, it looked a lot like a Saturn V + spare space shuttle solid boosters + a rebuilt Apollo space capsule + a lot of duct tape. It looked like we were planning to go to Mars on a rocket built out of spare parts. But SLS/Orion has evolved a great deal since then, both as an actual spacecraft and as a concept, and as the cornerstone of a new, rather bold space exploration program. I wasn't a huge fan of the Ares/Constellation program, not for any technical reason, but because I wanted to see NASA's budget spent more on unmanned probes deeper into space. The Mars landers and rovers have changed my opinion on this. From Viking to Curiosity they have performed amazing science. But realistically, all of the science performed on Mars combined since 1976 could have been accomplished by one reasonably bright human in one reasonably productive afternoon. It's time to get boots on the ground. SLS/Orion is going to make that possible, soon. Charlie Bolden's "rocket to everywhere" is rapidly becoming a very fine piece of hardware, indeed.
I think that the combination of brash, innovative SpaceX and solid, competent and experienced Boeing will be an excellent one. Elon Musk has made it very clear that his goal is to build a city (not research facility, or colony; "city") on Mars soon enough for him to retire on, with or without help from NASA. Boeing is looking to corner the market on cheap, safe and utterly routine spaceflight; to do for spaceflight what they've already done for commercial jet air travel. In their own ways, each goal is incredibly ambitious, and fully achievable with the teams involved. I'm really, really happy to see these two moving forward in realizing commercial spaceflight.