Last flight of Atlantis: but where next?

STS 132 launches on May 14th

So, with its return on May 26th, we have had the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the first of the three operational shuttles to be retired. Discovery makes its last flight in September followed by Endeavour in November. Its hard to believe that the first atmospheric flight of the Shuttle Enterprise was as far back as 1977, with the first orbital flight, by Columbia, being in 1981.

L to R: NASA Administrator Dr. James C. Fletcher; DeForest Kelley (Dr. "Bones" McCoy); George Takei (Mr. Sulu); James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott); Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock); series creator Gene Roddenberry; NASA Deputy Administrator George Low; and, Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov). Photo taken on 17th September 1976. William Shatner (James T Kirk) is conspicuously absent!

Incidentally, this demonstrated a terrible mistake made by Star Trek fans, of which, we must confess, we are one! The original space shuttle was going to be called Constitution but, using the awesome force of Trekkie lobbying, as they had in bringing back the original series for a third season, they persuaded NASA to change the name to Enterprise. The problem was that the first shuttle was never intended to go into space. It was just a test bed for atmospheric flight. If they had held out for the second shuttle they would have actually seen an Enterprise in orbit.

With the loss of the shuttle NASA has awarded contracts for resupply of the International Space Station to two private sector companies SpaceX (using their Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon spacecraft) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (using their Taurus II launch vehicle and Cygnus spacecraft). Given that neither are ready, NASA will have to use Russian Soyuz launchers for the foreseeable future although, given payload limits, the Russians say that, in fact, one more Shuttle launch will be needed in 2011 after all.

The shuttle compared with Ares I and V and the Saturn V showing comparative sizes and payloads.

The long term plan was for the shuttle to be replaced by the Orion spacecraft as part of what became Project Contellation. This envisaged two launchers: Ares I and Ares V (mirroring the Saturn I and Saturn 5 names). Unlike the Saturn programme, which saw the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets being part of a developmental evolution, the Ares rockets would be part of a twin solution with Ares I taking crew and Ares V taking cargo into orbit.

First test of Ares I in October 2009

Ares I has already been test launched but the whole programme looked in danger when President Obama's Federal budget didn't allocate any funds for Project Constellation this February. Obama considered the Project Constellation project "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation". However, in April, Obama seemed to back off a bit, saying that the Orion could go ahead if it was designed to function as an escape capsule for the International Space Station and also be used for any deep space exploration (such as a flight to Mars). Decisions on the heavy lift component (Ares V) have been postponed until 2015 so we may yet see Obama's hoped for private sector solution for a Shuttle replacement. The key issue for the Americans is that with increasing Asian success in launching rockets, (India, Japan, China and Korea) their rocket industry could go the way of their car industry if they don't keep up.