The gap…

Not the store, that would be lovely, but no, I’m referring to the impending “spaceflight gap” that NASA’s currently preparing itself for. As this blog has chronicled for awhile now, NASA is slowly phasing out its shuttle program. After finally deciding last week where the retired shuttles will reside for display (NYC, LA, northern Virginia, and Cape Canaveral), NASA is now acknowledging what many have been talking about for a few years now, that NASA is going to be stuck without any way to get its astronauts into space for at least a few years. Back in 2009, President Obama proposed the Commercial Crew Development program, aimed at helping U.S. private enterprises develop the capability to transport U.S. astronauts to space. But until this really picks up, NASA will need to bum rides off other nations or sideline its entire manned spaceflight program until the technology catches up. In fact, the agency recently inked a $753 million deal with Russia for 12 round trip voyages to the ISS and back for American astronauts aboard Russian launches between 2014 and 2016. Last week at the 27th National Space Symposium, a panel of experts (including former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin) acknowledged the spaceflight gap and its implications for NASA. As George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, admitted, “We find ourselves in a very unfortunate and rather awkward situation. About 2.5 months from now, after the space shuttle Atlantis completes its final mission, the United States will no longer have the capability to launch its astronauts into space.”

An unfortunate truth, but that doesn’t mean NASA is panicking just yet, in fact just today the agency granted $270 million to American companies who are quickly working to try to build spacecraft to shuttle NASA astronauts to space as part of the Commercial Crew Development program. Two of the companies are headed by big-wig entrepreneurs. Blue Origin, which was started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, received $22 million in the funding round. PayPal co-founder and 2010 Limitless Award winner Elon Musk’s SpaceX received $75 million. They were flanked by Sierra Nevada and Boeing, which received $80 million and $92.3 million, respectively. The NASA higher-ups are officially sticking to their guns on this decision and supporting the program, but many outside experts are worried about the situation NASA is putting itself in. “We’re committed to safely transporting U.S. astronauts on American-made spacecraft and ending the outsourcing of this work to foreign governments,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement yesterday. “These agreements are significant milestones in NASA’s plans to take advantage of American ingenuity to get to low-Earth orbit, so we can concentrate our resources on deep space exploration.” “The next American-flagged vehicle to carry our astronauts into space is going to be a U.S. commercial provider,” Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said in a statement. “The partnerships NASA is forming with industry will support the development of multiple American systems capable of providing future access to low-Earth orbit.” Whether or not any of this actually leads to commercial spaceflight is yet to be seen, but at this point, NASA’s got its own problems to worry about. A big research collaboration with the European Space Agency to look for gravity waves was just scrapped because NASA doesn’t have the funding.

But, never fear! To avoid making this whole post doom and gloomy, here are some really impressive infrared images just released from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. Check this one out!

Reflection Nebula DG 129 and Pi Scorpii as seen by WISE. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

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One Response to The gap…

  1. Jarman says:

    I was hoping your entry would end with something like, “Allowing private companies to take the lead will allow NASA to focus on development on new awesome interplanetary aircraft.” Instead, poor NASA is desperately attempting to get funding for ANYTHING it seems. 😦

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