A few days ago, 30 years of NASA space flights ended. In the 135th space shuttle mission, Atlantis successfully docked at the International Space Station to deliver supplies. At a cost of over $200 billion over the course of its history, NASA's space shuttle program is an unfortunate target of federal cuts prompted by the current budget crisis in Washington. In tribute to the program that helped take man to the moon, launch the Hubble Telescope, and build the International Space Station, NASA described the space shuttle as "the most complex machine ever built to bring humans to and from space and eventually construct the next stop on the road to space exploration” in its short documentary. With that view to the future in mind, let's take a look at where America's space program is headed, rather than lament the close of its most successful chapter.
Putting Men Mars
President Obama has noted that retiring the space shuttles is just one step necessary in order to launch a new generation of space vehicles designed to take Americans to Mars. The new transport is called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle based on Lockheed Martin's Orion design. The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is scheduled for its first manned mission in 2016, and estimated to cost around $210 billion through 2025. Tentatively, a spacecraft of this type will reach Mars by 2031.
Construction on the International Space Station began in 1998 and should finish with Russia's final additions in 2012. For the past 10 years, humans have occupied the low orbit station to conduct experiments in its micro-gravity environment. According to NASA, the ISS is a unique scientific testing ground that will help us develop the technologies needed for future exploration missions that will take humans even farther out into our solar system. One such research project on board the Atlantis mission involves a space robot named Dextre that can refuel and repair existing satellites. Despite its usefulness in space research, the ISS does have one obvious downside since the end of the space shuttles. Until a proven commerical option exists, America will have to pay Russia over $50 million a seat just to get its astronauts to and from the space station.
Just a few days from now on July 16, NASA's Dawn spacecraft should reach an asteroid belt in which lurks Vesta and Ceres, asteroids so huge that they almost became planets. Already in space for over 3 years, Dawn will have traveled over 752,000 miles in the last 3 months alone; that's three times the distance between Earth and the moon. With its ultra-efficient ion powered engine that works by ionizing xenon gas already in space, the unmanned space mission should be able to explore for years. The goal of the mission is to search for new moons and other discoveries using detailed cameras, gamma ray and neutron detectors, and a suite of other instruments capable of studying asteroid surfaces. After a journey of almost 3 billion miles, Dawn has finally provided us with its first picture of Vesta.