Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An artist's concept of the Dragon spacecraft in Earth orbit.

ENTER THE DRAGON... Yesterday, NASA offered two private aerospace companies—Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX—a contract worth $3.5 billion to haul cargo and/or crew to the International Space Station (ISS) after the space shuttle retires in 2010. The reason why this interests me is pretty much implied above: the United States has the potential to have two types of manned vehicles that will take astronauts into space by 2015. Besides the Dragon capsule that's shown in the pic above, the other manned vehicle—of course—is NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

An artist's concept of the Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

2009 should be an intriguing year for U.S. human spaceflight. The Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket (which is also constructed by SpaceX) that will carry Dragon into space will undergo a series of test launches next year. This July will see the launch of Ares I-X, a prototype of the Ares I rocket that will ferry the Orion spacecraft to the ISS, and hopefully to more distant destinations (ahem, the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids and of course, Mars?) starting in the later half of next decade. The launch of Ares I-X, however, depends on whether or not the shuttle Atlantis will be able to get off the ground next May on a mission to service and repair the Hubble Space Telescope one last time.

Various segments making up the upper stage simulator on the Ares I-X rocket are being mated together at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA / Troy Cryder

One more thing: Our nation’s potential to have two manned space vehicles by 2015 also hinges on what Barack Obama does when he officially becomes the U.S. President on January 20. *Crosses fingers.*

An arrtist's concept showing the Ares I-X rocket on its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.