Thursday, August 25, 2005

In which NASA's manned space program falls farther behind the pack

New Scientist is reporting in the article Space-ferry may be ready by 2010 that the European Space Agency and Japan are signing on to a development deal with Russia to jointly fund and build the Kliper reusable crew carrier, which I compared to NASA's more conservative manned spaceflight plans a while back.
Russia, Europe, and Japan may jointly develop a crewed spacecraft called Kliper to ferry as many as six astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The spacecraft could launch as early as 2010 - just as NASA retires its space shuttles.

The three space agencies are in discussions to develop the craft, which is intended as a replacement for Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. Soyuz has been the workhorse of Russia's human spaceflight programme, but is based on 40-year-old technology.

“Soyuz works and works but the components are becoming obsolete," says Alan Thirkettle, head of the development department at the European Space Agency's (ESA’s) human spaceflight and exploration directorate.

The craft carries three people and can stay docked to the International Space Station for just six months, but the Kliper may transport twice as many and could stay in orbit for up to a year. Officials estimate the first uncrewed flight could take place in 2010, with the first crewed flight in 2011.

Without seeing the final version of either the U.S. or the Russian spacecraft, it's hard to make informed judgements, but heck, that's never stopped me before. Russia's lifting-body Kliper design is a better, forward-looking approach than NASA's utilitarian Apollo regression. The fact that Russia is building on all the pioneering lifting body work NASA (not to mention Scaled Composites and Lockheed Martin) had done over the decades merely compounds the frustration.

Yes, the new NASA plan is much more sensible than the current shuttle program. But we should be an aerospace leader and innovator, rather than a follower.

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