This NASA photo shows the July 8 launch of shuttle Atlantis as seen through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft.

Fading from View?

The International Space Station -- the world's biggest orbiting workplace and a designated national laboratory -- has continued U.S. funding through 2020, at least. With space shuttles being retired, will the public lose interest entirely?

One of the ironies about the NASA space shuttle program is that the general public and most of the news media lost interest in the seemingly routine missions until the Challenger disaster occurred in January 1986. Challenger and one other shuttle have been lost in flight during the shuttle program, which began 30 years ago and is scheduled to end now that four astronauts aboard Atlantis have been launched to carry out NASA's 135th and final space shuttle mission.

The four will deliver a multipurpose logistics module, supplies, and spare parts to the International Space Station (ISS) during a 12-day mission that began July 8, according to NASA. When Atlantis lands, the shuttle era will be over. And the station -- the world's biggest orbiting workplace and a designated national laboratory -- will still be orbiting, with a crew at work, to be visited and resupplied by international spacecraft.

What has the era meant to the astronauts? Plenty. ISS is just a decade old. It has continued U.S. funding and support through 2020, at least. We'll soon see whether the public loses interest entirely; whether a hoped-for commercial transport can replace the shuttles will take much longer.

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration published a report in April 2011, "Commercial Market Assessment for Crew and Cargo Systems," that says two companies -- Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. -- are actively developing private, commercial systems to transport cargo to the station. The agency awarded $50 million to five companies last year to help them develop commercial systems to take humans into low-Earth orbit, and the report notes that American entrepreneurs have started companies that "have invested hundreds of millions of dollars of private capital to develop the technologies, production process, and organizations that they believe can profitably supply a market for space transportation, within an acceptable time horizon to the investors. As the knowledge, technologies, processes and communities capable of spaceflight become ever more widespread and competitive," it continues, "the emergence of non-Governmental markets for human spaceflight is inevitable."

Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., may be farthest along at developing commercial space habitats. The company says it plans to develop its own, larger space station at a fraction of the cost of ISS.

Still, there are so many unknowns -- development costs, timing, how much "space tourists" are willing to pay, potential liability claims, etc. -- that the market for commercial human transportation is very difficult to predict, NASA and FAA concluded. And when the report was written, NASA had not yet completed crew transportation system certification requirements that will be used to certify systems as safe for carrying NASA and NASA-sponsored personnel to and from ISS.

Commercial Spacecraft Being Developed
The report examines historical human spaceflight rates, as well as the types of experiments done on ISS and which agencies did them. Only about 9 percent of all experiments done there involved commercial interests, and those private entities did not bear the transportation costs -- NASA did. The reports says "it is unclear if any of this research would have been conducted had the government financial contribution not existed."

As a statement posted on Bigelow Aerospace's website points out, NASA already has paid Russia more than $1 billion for more than 40 crew seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for ISS crew transportation and rescue services. Every year there is a delay in development of commercial crew transportation capability means more taxpayer money going to Russia, the report notes.

The NASA Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2) announced four awards in April 2011 to companies working on the crew transportation challenge: Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin, The Boeing Co., and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). Sierra Nevada Corp.'s 14-month contract is valued at $80 million, which the Colorado company is using to continue development of its Dream Chaser Orbital Space System. SpaceX received $75 million to develop a launch escape system so its Dragon spacecraft can carry astronauts; the California company's CEO/CTO, Elon Musk, says it already has a firm, fixed price contract for 12 Dragon missions to ISS.

Six years' work so far has gone into the Dream Chaser, a piloted spacecraft that will be launched on an Atlas V rocket and carry a crew of seven. "We have assembled a great team of human spaceflight-experienced personnel and companies that are enabling rapid, cost effective development of the Dream Chaser System," said Jim Voss, vice president of SNC Space Exploration Systems. "Our nation needs the capability to transport astronaut crews to the International Space Station and the SNC team intends to provide that capability through partnership with NASA. The strength of our team and our ability to work well together is leading the development of the Dream Chaser to fulfill that need, as well as transport humans to orbit for other commercial purposes such as scientific research and tourism."

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