space exploration's next look
Okay, you can start getting used to the new shape of space exploration now. The Space Shuttle is wheezing to the end of its rather impressive career of schlepping human beings and heavy crap of all sorts into Earth Orbit, and bringing most of the humans back safely, and this somewhat ungainly jeep or deuce-and-a- utility truck is what's going to take its place for a decade or two or three after it launches sometime in the neighborhood of 2014.
Did you see it on Vleeptron first? Of course you did.
There's a rumor the first of these things will be christened the Altair. I know why. And you should too. Leave A Comment.
These are the machines the NASA-allied Earthers will be using for most of the rest of our lifetimes to heave shit and people and various other species out into space. The Russians still shoot people and things up with their vehicles, the French launch the Ariane payload rockets from French Guiana in South America, the Chinese just sent a person into orbit I think, the Japanese are thinking about peopled space, and a private USA corporation, SpaceX, is pushing ahead with peopled space tourist taxis and buses.
The Space Shuttle can only go into low Earth orbit and return. The Crew Exploration Vehicle CEV will be able to fly to Earth orbit, or to fly to, orbit and land people on the Moon. NASA has announced plans to return to the Moon not long after the CEV is up and functioning. NASA seems also committed to a peopled Mars mission sometime after that.
It's not smooth, it's by no means universally popular anymore, it pushes forward in Fits and Starts, and over in the other county of Robotic Space Exploration, there are regular Slaughters of the Innocents -- huge, sudden, surprise budget slashes which kill the visionary experiments and the professional careers of a generation of our most brilliant and inspired space scientists, and impoverish our future volume of knowledge about our neighborhood in space. For budgetary purposes and necessary fiscal restraint, we choose to be much stupider about the universe than we had to be. We could get much smarter much quicker, and all with robots -- but we have better things to do with our money. (Cf. Iraq, maybe Iran now, too. And don't forget North Korea and Syria. We have better things to do with our money.)
But these are the Great Voyages. And we're taking them for the same reason Pacific Ocean people lashed pigs and fruit to rafts and set out on their Great Voyages until they'd peopled every island in the Pacific -- none of which they knew in advance was there. They had no magnetic compass. They read and smelled the surface of the ocean, they read the clouds, they had an intimacy with the stars, they followed birds.
The CEV is just getting off the drawing board, and although NASA is doing a few tricks to speed it into space, there's a predicted four-year window of incapability between the retirement of the last Shuttle and the launch of the first CEV. The Russians will almost certainly cover most of the gap for resupplying and re-crewing the Space Station.
I don't think the European Space Agency -- I wear its decal on my backpack -- wants to get into the peopled space business yet. They launch robots.