The International Station will be able to operate until at least 2020, according to the current budget. NASA's decades-old shuttle program will end in September. After that supplies and personnel will be ferried to the ISS by unmanned vehicles operated by other countries. U.S. astronauts will be transported back and forth via Russian Soyuz capsules. The Bush administration's Constellation program has been canceled. However, the U.S. is investing in the emerging commercial space industry. NASA's larger vision for the U.S. space program has yet to be announced. Until then we will be watching the end of an era in U.S. space flight.
NASA's space shuttle, Endeavour's 6-person crew landed safely Sunday night at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Well reported by Marcia Dunn for the Associated Press, "All that's left now are four shuttle flights to stock the space station with more experiments, spare parts and supplies." The story went on:
. . . making a rare nighttime landing to end a mission that resulted in the virtual completion of the International Space Station. . . During their mission — which spanned two weeks and 5.7 million miles — the astronauts delivered and installed a new space station room, Tranquility, and a big bay window with sweeping views of the Earth.
. . . Tranquility already is serving as a base for life-support equipment, as well as a gym and restroom. It also holds the seven-windowed dome, quite possibly the most anticipated addition ever made to a spacecraft.
. . . The two new compartments were supplied by the European Space Agency at a cost of more than $400 million. Their addition brought the 11-year-old space station to 98 percent completion.
. . . NASA plans on wrapping up the shuttle program this fall, after which the space station will be supplied by craft from Russia, Europe and Japan. Astronauts will be hitching rides exclusively on Russian Soyuz capsules. The Obama Administration is proposing that commercial rocket companies take a crack at the U.S. ferry side of it, once the three remaining shuttles are retired.
The STS-130 mission's main purpose was to finish constructing the International Stace Station. After completing the installation of the ISS's new Tranquility module with its wow-factor cupola, the combined crew received a call from President Obama, the AP reported at MSNBC- Space.com, 2/18/10. To quote:
"I just wanted to let you guys know how proud we are of all of you," Obama said. "Everybody here back home is excited about this bay on the world that you guys are opening up. And Stephen Colbert at least is excited about his treadmill."
. . . Surrounded by schoolchildren with an engineering bent, Obama noted "the amazing work" being done on the space station by multiple nations. It is "a testimony to why continued space exploration is so important and is part of the reason why my commitment to NASA is unwavering," he said.
End of space station era?
Obama did not mention his recent decision to cancel NASA's back-to-the-moon program, Constellation — a controversial verdict within the aerospace community. He also offered no hints as to where astronauts might venture next, following the space station era.
The United States' lunar pull-out leaves China shooting for the moon, according to Francois Bougon's AFP story of 2/20/10. To quote:
China aims to land its first within a decade at the dawn of a new era of manned space exploration -- a race it now leads thanks to the US decision to drop its lunar programme.Bougon concludes:
US President Barack Obama earlier this month said he planned to drop the costly Constellation space programme, a budget move that would kill off future moon exploration if it is approved by Congress.
In contrast, China has a fast-growing human spaceflight project that has notched one success after another, including a spacewalk by astronauts in 2008, with plans for a manned lunar mission by around 2020.
But Beijing has other significant Asian competitors to reckon with as it vies to become the second nation to put a man on the moon.
India landed a lunar probe in 2008, and a top official said last month it was targeting a manned space mission in 2016. Japan, meanwhile, launched its first lunar satellite in June last year.
So it appears that United States preeminence in space exploration will soon be at an end. That is a bittersweet reality for so many of us, that we have yet to take it in. The beginning of the end started with the Bush administration's poorly conceived and underfunded Constellation program. It became a plan for an expensive set of space vehicles with nowhere to go. The good news for Earth is that long ago the space program became a truly international project, or set of projects. It is too expensive and dangerous for just one country to dominate. Perhaps one day China and India will come to that same conclusion. Meanwhile we have a very solid partnership with Canada, Russia, ESA (European Space Agency) and JAXA (Japan). The astronauts have always been just fine with that. We must now join them in that profound interdependence.