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NASA dishes out $270 million to speed U.S. return to orbit after space shuttle retirement

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Sierra Nevada Dream ChaserThe space shuttle program has just two launches remaining on the calendar, one April 29 and one in June. After that, no one knows what the next U.S.-based rocket to take astronauts to orbit will look like, when it will launch, or who will have built it. But all indications are that the rocket won’t be NASA’s—the space agency is hoping private firms will soon be capable of safely ferrying U.S. astronauts to and from orbit.

A few frontrunners to take that role emerged April 18, with the announcement that NASA is awarding four companies a combined $270 million to develop manned spaceflight systems for use after the space shuttle is retired.

Blue Origin will receive $22 million to develop vehicle designs and test engines and an escape system; Boeing will get $92.3 million to develop its CST-100 crew capsule; Sierra Nevada Corp. will receive $80 million to pursue its Dream Chaser spacecraft; and SpaceX will get $75 million to continue work on its rockets and capsules and to develop technologies such as a launch-abort system. The companies will be expected to provide their own funds as well, albeit on a smaller scale than the NASA contributions, to develop their technologies.

NASA received 22 proposals for funds, said Philip McAlister, NASA’s acting director for Commercial Spaceflight Development, in an April 18 teleconference with reporters. He said the goal was to select "a portfolio of approaches" that might return NASA astronauts to flight soon, without foreign assistance. (After the space shuttle retires, NASA will rely on Russia to deliver U.S. astronauts to orbit until a successor is ready.)

"We are trying to make an American-made system that will get our astronauts to low Earth orbit," said Edward Mango, program manager for the Commercial Crew Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He said that the NASA-fueled development of commercial space companies should cut short the interlude during which Russian rockets will be the only route to space.

McAlister implied that the U.S. spaceflight gap may be as short as a few years. "We are targeting the middle part of this decade to have services available," he said.

Artist’s conception of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser: Sierra Nevada Corp.





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  1. 1. letxequalx 6:02 am 04/19/2011

    270 million is just lip service to a new manned space program. It’s the basic research that should have been done while the space shuttle still had many more missions ahead. The bottom line is, we no longer have a manned program, or a serious commitment to one. Private development will handle space tourism and satellites but we will never get to Mars that way. We are giving up the dream of space to play policeman on earth with a series of costly and meaningless wars.

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  2. 2. dbtinc 8:27 am 04/19/2011

    I’m hoping your are correct and that we do not spend any more serious money on manned space flight. We can and have succeeded with unmanned missions that have been scientifically far more important then putting a few people in space and developing technologies that have limited use here.

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  3. 3. JeffW22 3:01 pm 04/19/2011

    The US gov has a budget again, and is betting heavily on "Commercial Space" picking up the debris of NASA’s epic failure to develop a new crew launcher. But does this hope have any basis in reality or is NewSpace just a bunch of scifi boys playing with toys? <a href="http://www.nealstephenson.com/">Neal Stephenson</a> works at Blue Origin, Gary Hudson of Roton Rocket fame recently channeled <a href="http://www.parabolicarc.com/2011/04/07/space-access-11-gary-hudson-channels-admiral-ackbar/">Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar</a>, and SpaceX seems to have picked up a scifi scribe of their own in <a href="http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/ralphewig">Ralph Ewig</a>. Are these really the nation’s best last hope, or are they a bunch of dreamers who can’t separate the "science" from the "fiction"?

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  4. 4. ennui 12:01 am 04/20/2011

    For only $50 million, they could have updated the Shuttles with the technology of the Flying Saucer, which they were offered. The Shuttles could have been flown for another 30 years at a very low cost.
    Nasa should have been run by Engineers instead of former Astronauts and Politicians.

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  5. 5. ennui 12:20 am 04/20/2011

    Further to my comment: The shuttles would have been at the ISS in one hour and on the Moon in a couple of hours. Mars would be there within one day.
    The Shuttles would fly with a constant acceleration of ONE G, comfortable to the crew. Braking at the half-way point with the same force. As an added bonus, the technology would have provided a force field, that would protect Shuttle and crew from collision swith Space Debris and Radiation.
    As an extra, the Power needed, would be tapped out of the aether, like Tesla did for his Pierce Arrow Car in 1931.
    Probably too advanced for Americans.
    Stick to your One to Ten Billion Dollar Heavy Lifter .
    You will be only seven years behind the country that will have landed on the Moon and Mars and will have a hotel in both places.
    Oh, to have brains like Nasa`s Management.

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  6. 6. bucketofsquid 1:49 pm 04/20/2011

    There is a big difference between a single pole capacitor and an anti-gravity device or producer of meaningfull thrust. I read your patent application and can see where it may be useful for energy storage, it doesn’t actually create any energy and electricity is a poor accellerator without an accompanying engine.

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  7. 7. bewertow 2:52 pm 04/20/2011

    Hi there ennui

    are you on crack?

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  8. 8. ennui 1:28 am 04/21/2011

    Hello Bewer and Squid,
    What makes you such experts?
    The Propulsion Units of a Flying Saucer, that are these big spheres underneath, can push a one hundred ton weight off the ground and into the air.
    That can also be used to generate power.
    If we have a weight with that propulsion system under it, it can lift that 100 tons too in a Silo.
    When that comes down it can be used to activate a generator and produce thousands of Kilowatts. Use two silos and work them alternately and you have power at 1 cent per Kilowatt.
    The "trick" that is used is maybe hard to understand for you but the energy, to do the pushing is released in a short time. If that capacitor is charged up with the equivalent of 100 watts, it is released in a millisecond or faster. That would mean 100 Kilowatts or a push of 1,333 Hp.
    Just like a bullet out of a gun, the faster the cordite burns the faster the bullet flies.
    Let us know what you have come up with to improve life for everybody other than insults.

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  9. 9. Quinn the Eskimo 8:48 pm 04/21/2011

    Ummm, excuse me, I’ve forgotten, what was the name of the corporation that sponsored Columbus on that Caribbean trip of his? Back 1492?

    Jus’ curious.

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  10. 10. sanforce 8:52 pm 04/27/2011

    Apparently ennui is the smartest person on the planet. Somehow the aliens chose to give their technology to him, but nobody will listen!

    I think bewertow got it correct.

    Link to this

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