The End of Manned Spaceflight?

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The End of Manned Spaceflight?

Questions over funding are putting the US commitment to manned spaceflight in doubt. China, though, is pressing on.

After a long delay, on May 24, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration finally unveiled its plan for human spaceflight, once the 30-year-old space shuttle programme ends in July.

The agency's plan is to use the basic design of Lockheed Martin's Orion space capsule, developed since 2005 as part of the ‘Constellation’ programme, which aimed to return astronauts to the moon by the 2020s. Constellation was cancelled by the Barack Obama administration last year, after NASA had already spent $5 billion on the Orion capsule.

Reviving Orion under the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle programme is part of the administration's plan to transport astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, bypassing the moon. But while the new capsule is funded, the rocket to launch it, and any long-term exploration initiatives that might require the capsule, aren’t.

And that could place the 50-year-old US manned spaceflight programme—and its benefits to US prestige—in jeopardy, according to Eric Sterner, an analyst with The Marshall Institute in Washington, D.C.

‘The vehicle signifies a continued commitment to human spaceflight, which plays into American soft power,’ Sterner says. ‘So, it has potential benefit there.’

‘Unfortunately, there’s no commitment or funding to do anything with the vehicle. NASA and Congress are in a none-too-subtle argument about the feasibility of building a heavy lift vehicle for exploration, which Congress has mandated but not funded and which the administration has no credible plans to use. So, I fear NASA will build a nice new crew vehicle that never becomes operational and sees more time in a museum than in orbit.

‘That’s the path we’re on. Ultimately, that will only undermine any value the human spaceflight programme has for American soft power by demonstrating an intolerable fecklessness.’

China, by contrast, has demonstrated a remarkable determination and focus in its own efforts to boost people into space. Beijing put its first taikonaut into orbit in a capsule in 2003, and followed that with a 2008 spacewalk. Now the Chinese space agency is working on an orbital space station, scheduled for completion in 2020.