Tuesday, January 8, 2013

NASA may launch unmanned Orion capsule in 2014

At least that's what NASA said in a December 13, 2012 post on its website. We still have to get through 2013 first.

Meanwhile, the rapidly graying believers in President Kennedy's promised "New Frontier" may be less than totally geeked to learn that NASA has awarded contracts to develop crew transportation systems.

It's perhaps for the best that NASA wasn't around in 1903. The Wright Brothers might have gotten some government money for their experiments at Kitty Hawk (Samuel Pierpont Langley, the secretary of the Smithsonian, got some government cheese for his unsuccessful "aerodrome" efforts), but would Orville and Wilbur ever have been able to meet NASA's certification standards?

The three lucky recipients of NASA contracts are Chicago's own Boeing Company, Sierra Nevada Corporation Space System, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX).

The SpaceX Dragon capsule docking at ISS in May 2012
At this point, only SpaceX has successfully completed an (unmanned) cargo resupply flight to the International Space Station. Dragon, the SpaceX capsule used for the cargo supply flights, will eventually be fitted out for human flight. Meanwhile, our once proud astronauts have to hitch rides to lower Earth orbit on Russia's venerable Soyouz capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

NASA's list of planned 2013 launches shows SpaceX scheduled to make two more unmanned flights to the International Space Station (on March 1 and September 30). A competitor for the freight hauling business, Orbital Sciences Corporation, has two test flights of its Anteres launch vehicle planned this year; the second one, in April, is supposed to rendezvous with the International Space Station (but it's scheduled to burn up on the way back.

And what about the Sierra Nevada (SNC) and Boeing vehicles?

The SNC Dream Catcher is supposed to look
like this on its way to Earth orbit.
Well, they're not on the schedule for this year... but the SNC Dream Chaser is scheduled for more 'drop tests' (one was conducted this past May). Boeing's CST-100 has successfully tested its system of parachute deployment. In August, NASA reported that the Boeing vehicle had completed its first performance milestone.

John F. Kennedy's vision propelled America to do a lot in a decade. But he's gone 50 years this year; the last man left the Moon 40 years ago last month.

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