June 19, 2011 4:19 pm

Nasa: US prepares to take a breather in space race

For manned spaceflight, next month will see the end of an era that lasted 30 years. The 135th and final launch of a US space shuttle is scheduled for July 8, when Atlantis takes off with a crew of four from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The last shuttle flight will be a particularly emotional event for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) staff in Florida, at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, who have devoted their working lives to the shuttle programme and, in many cases, now face redundancy.

Many other Americans not directly involved in the space industry are also saddened that their country, which has led the world in manned flight since the mid-1960s, will no longer have the means to put astronauts into orbit.

For the next few years – until the private space sector has met the challenge laid down by President Barack Obama of developing a commercial crew vehicle – the US must rely on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to take astronauts to and from the ISS. Nasa has booked places on 10 Soyuz flights to the end of 2013.

Soyuz has a very small capacity for carrying non-human payloads, compared with the shuttle. For the time being, Russia’s Progress space cargo tug and the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicles will be able to take up some of the slack in lifting supplies up to the ISS – and Nasa has contracted with the commercial US space industry to supply future cargo flights.

The world’s space agencies have spent an estimated $100bn building the ISS over the past 13 years and are committed to keep it going, with a crew of six, at least until 2020.

With construction of the ISS complete, the focus is turning to its role as a huge orbiting laboratory. Little noteworthy science has emerged so far from experiments carried out in the microgravity environment of space, but ISS research managers insist that a worthwhile programme is now under way, in fields ranging from materials science to biotechnogy.

The biggest single research project is the $1.5bn Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which the shuttle Endeavour delivered on its farewell flight last month. The AMS is designed to detect cosmic rays and rare subatomic particles from outer space. Physicists hope it will help them to pin down the identity of the mysterious “dark matter” that is believed to pervade the universe – and also to discover whether space contains any particles of anti-matter.

While the US private sector concentrates on producing spacecraft for use in low Earth orbit, Nasa has switched the focus of its technology development to rockets and crew vehicles that could take people further into the solar system, as requested by President Obama when he gave the agency a new strategy last year.

Although the president cancelled the costly Constellation programme that the previous Bush administration had intended to replace the shuttle, parts of Constellation are being salvaged and adapted for use as deep space transport.

Charles Bolden, Nasa administrator, announced last month that designs originally drawn up for the Orion crew vehicle within Constellation would form the basis of a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). “We are committed to human exploration beyond low earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there,” he said.

Lockheed Martin, which was working on Orion, will be the chief contractor for the MPCV. The initial version of the spacecraft will carry four astronauts for 21-day missions. It is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than the space shuttle, which killed 14 people in two accidents over 30 years (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003).

At the same time Nasa is struggling to decide how to develop a heavy-lift rocket to send the MPCV or another future crew vehicle into deep space – perhaps to visit an asteroid or Mars.

One option is to build on the 1960s legacy of the Apollo programme, which lives on in the new J-2X rocket engine that Nasa is about to start testing at its Stennis Space Centre in Mississippi. J-2X, built by long-standing Nasa contractor Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, is a derivative of the Saturn upper-stage engine that sent astronauts to the moon more than 40 years ago.

Another option is to bring in newer but less proven rocket designs from companies that have not traditionally been part of Nasa’s circle of contractors within what used to be called the military-industrial complex.

The selection of Lockheed Martin, another traditional aerospace contactor, to develop the MPCV “does not indicate a business-as-usual mentality for Nasa programmes,” insists Douglas Cooke who runs the agency’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Outside observers are reserving judgment.

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