What Lies In The Future For American Space Flight Program

Note: The following is a repository of a post published in malfly.blogspot.com on February 26, 2012 following the 50th anniversary of US manned space mission in 1962. While initially the race is between the US and USSR, 50 years past and now its between the might of US private space company and the emerging power of China.

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American that orbit the earth aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft which marked a landmark US success of its endeavor into human space flight, which was then led by the USSR. Fifty years have passed, the United States has retired its final space shuttle, the Atlantis for nearly a year this coming July and it seems that for the time being, until its commercial space flight reaches maturity, it has to rely on its former rival, the Russian Federation to send in its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on board the Soyuz spacecraft. At the same time, it also has to rely on other partner nation like the European Union countries (ESA) and Japan (JAXA) to replenish the space station.

The Atlas rocket

John Glenn inside the Friendship 7

In the words of John Glenn himself, “ It’s unseemly to me that here we are, supposedly the world’s greatest space-faring nation, and we don’t even have a way to get back and forth to our own International Space Station”

Spaceflight has always been an exclusive venture and monopoly between the US and Russia along with its partner nations such as the EU countries, Japan, Canada to name a few. But as can be seen today, it seems that Russia and America had a new rival, the People’s Republic of China whose over the years is striving fast and hard to catch up with them in terms of independently launching and executing its very own human space flights program. It takes 8 years after its first ever manned orbital flight for the Chinese to launch its first space station compared to Russia and the US which takes 10 to 11 years to accomplish such feat.   

Nevertheless, what lies ahead in the future for the American’s human space flight program? Even though NASA’s Constellation program has been cancelled in 2010, it can still relies on its commercial sectors which are now progressing well ahead to provide commercially driven space program. 

The now cancelled Orion spacecraft heading towards the ISS in this artist impression

Since the start of the new millennia, we have seen the World’s first civilian astronaut when Scaled Composites’ X-Prize winner, the Starship One and Whiteknight One surged into the limits of the atmosphere. The program has paved the way for Virgin Galactic’s commercial suborbital flight with its White Knight Two and SpaceShip Two vehicles.

SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnight

SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo

Another American company, Bigelow Aerospace has to date successfully launched and deploy its expendable habitat modules, the Genesis I and Genesis II. Then, there is also SpaceX Dragon space capsule which has successfully being launched into space on December 2010. In the coming years Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems will be operational with its unnamed gigantic carrier aircraft known only by its model number M351.

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

Genesis expandable space module

Genesis space station as seen in space

Dragon capsule splash down in 2010

The Stratolauncher bears resemblance to the WhiteKnight program

On October 21, 2007, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor becomes the first Malaysian astronaut to reach space on board the Soyuz TMA-10. I wonder whether he will also lament just like John Glenn about what Malaysia has achieved so far during his 50th Anniversary of space flight to the ISS.