While it’s a little off-topic, the Hub recently visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Originally, the trip was scheduled for the last shuttle launch, but delays from the last launch pushed the schedule back a week. However, things actually worked out for the best. In particular, we were able to get an up close glimpse at the future of human space flight.
With the retirement of the shuttle, the Hub was under the wrong impression that NASA was no longer actively developing a manned space vehicle. The Hub thought it had been turned over to the private sector with the cancellation of the Constellation program. Constellation was the program to get us back to the moon and beyond with a new series of heavy lift rockets and vehicles.
In reality, there are two separate efforts going on. Private companies are competing to create a low-earth orbit vehicle to shuttle people to and from the International Space Station. In addition, despite the cancellation of Constellation, NASA is still actively developing a manned deep space vehicle, Orion
, now being called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion seems a bit catchier). The Hub examined a full-sized test version of the vehicle
that had just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for a brief visit. Last year, this prototype was used to test the Launch Abort System which would allow astronauts to escape during a launch mishap. NASA is also developing a new heavy lift vehicle as part of the Space Launch System
. However, from our reading, its future is unclear. While the Orion capsule would benefit from a new heavy lift rocket, it could also be retrofitted to work with one of the existing rockets in NASA’s fleet. According to those close to the vehicle, the best case scenario for a manned test of Orion is four years from now.
To finish up, I have to say that the trip to the Kennedy Space Center is well worth it. Surprisingly, despite the upcoming shuttle launch, the crowds were thin. The good news is you don’t have to wait to see anything. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable. However, there was a backdrop of sadness given the end of the shuttle program. We’ll finish off with some video of the Orion prototype and a mock up of the Launch Abort System which would sit on top of the Orion.