Reviewing our manned-spaceflight options

Monday, the three crew members of the International Space Station's Expedition 38 touched down safely near Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan.  The crew, two Russians and an American, returned to Earth aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.  While they landed in one former Soviet republic, another another was embroiled in one of the largest international incidents of the post-Cold War era.  With the United States and the European Union pondering a host of economic and political sanctions against the Russian Federation, the world's reliance on Russia for manned spaceflight has begun to look somewhat precarious.  Although I doubt that anything short of a full-blown war would disrupt our cooperation in space, let's take a look at our options for transporting crews to and from space without the assistance of Russia.

NASA is developing its Orion capsule to ferry crews to orbit, but it won't be ready for at least six more years.  (Image credit: NASA)

NASA is developing its Orion capsule to ferry crews to orbit, but it won't be ready for at least six more years.  (Image credit: NASA)

First, let's just go ahead and eliminate a couple of things right off the bat.  The space shuttles cannot be un-retired.  Neither can NASA's pre-shuttle Apollo capsule.  If we're going to go back into space, we need to look to the future.

NASA's own plans for crewed spaceflight rest on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, better known as the Orion capsule.  Announced in 2011 as the successor to the cancelled Constellation program, Orion is designed to carry two to six astronauts on a variety of missions, including trips to the Moon, nearby asteroids, and, of course, the ISS.  With Orion, NASA has abandoned the design theory which resulted in the expensive shuttle and returned to an Apollo-esque design which lands with the help of parachutes.

Although Orion is slated to make its initial launch later this year aboard an Delta IV rocket, NASA expects it to be at least six years before the vehicle is ready to launch with a crew aboard. This is in part because Orion is designed to launch on top of the next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which itself has yet to fly.  The requirements for certifying a launch vehicle reliable enough for human use are complex, and the process time-consuming.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule has already made two deliveries to the ISS.  It could begin ferrying crews as early as next year.  (Image credit: NASA)

SpaceX's Dragon capsule has already made two deliveries to the ISS.  It could begin ferrying crews as early as next year.  (Image credit: NASA)

Anticipating delays in SLS, NASA has fostered partnerships with several private spaceflight corporations, most notably SpaceX.  SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule (another Apollo-like design) have already made two successful deliveries to the ISS and will launch again next week for a third.  Like Orion, SpaceX's crew capsule (named DragonRider) will transport up to seven astronauts, but is not yet ready for human operation.  Unlike Orion, though, the base Dragon spacecraft has already undergone a number of orbital missions and proven itself reliable.  NASA has provided the company with more than half a billion dollars to further develop Dragon's crew capabilities.  Under the most aggressive timeline, SpaceX could be launching its first test crew next year, but a delay from that would not be unexpected.

Two other companies are also developing spacecraft, but neither has yet to fly in space.  Boeing is working on its CST-100 capsule, which shares many similarities with the Orion.  Sierra Nevada is in the testing phase with its Dream Chaser, perhaps the most interesting of the next-generation capsules.  Appearing at first glance like a scaled-down space shuttle, the Dream Chaser will launch vertically aboard an Atlas V, but land on a runway like a plane.  NASA has awarded more than a billion dollars between these two companies and both hope to be ready for human crews by 2017.

Of course, there is one additional orbital spacecraft rated for carrying crews today: China's Shenzhou ("Divine Craft"), which has been carrying Chinese astronauts to orbit for more than a decade.  It's difficult, however, to envision a scenario in which NASA would shun Russia yet cooperate with China.  In fact, it would take an act of the US Congress to make such an event even possible, and bills aren't exactly flying out of the Capitol's doors these days.

So, for now, it's Soyuz or bust.  And, geopolitics aside, that's not a terrible thing if you're an astronaut: the Soyuz has a flawless safety record in human spaceflight.  That's something all its competitors will be striving to match.

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